NYC council addresses lawsuit over DOB’s inadequate plumbing inspections

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Prompted by a lawsuit filed by Plumbers Local 1, the New York City Council recently held a joint hearing of the Housing & Building Committee and the Committee on Oversight and Investigations on the city’s lax enforcement of gas safety inspections and worker qualifications by the city’s Department of Construction (Birthday). Photo courtesy of Butler Associates.

The New York City Council recently held a hearing on the Department of Buildings’ (DOB) inadequate enforcement of gas safety inspections and worker qualifications, prompted by a lawsuit brought by the Plumbers Local 1 union.

The lawsuit alleges that unlicensed or underskilled workers perform gas line installations in buildings and their substandard workmanship at critical gas welds is routinely not inspected by the DOB. The union’s legal team said they are committed to stronger enforcement of gas safety rules and regulations.

The lawsuit identifies hundreds of jobs in the five counties where the DOB allegedly approved “gas permits without supporting documents.”

The lawsuit, an Article 78 case filed in New York State Supreme Court in December 2022, seeks judicial intervention to oblige the DOB to comply with laws and regulations following tragic gas explosions in Manhattan in passed in 2014 and 2015.

The lawsuit includes examples of DOB permitting illegal gas work on taxpayer-funded public projects (Complaint, ¶101), evidence of unlicensed workers performing plumbing installations, instances of uncorroborated “inspections” by contractors, and affidavits by licensed plumbers performing improper Welds show , along with a refusal by DOB officials to follow up. In a conference call, a senior DOB official stated, “We’re not detectives.”

The union’s complaint comes as Mayor Eric Adams announced new efforts to “relax” certain measures to speed up the construction of 500,000 new housing units. These proposals include assigning the DOB to conduct fire safety inspections, which are normally performed by the New York City Fire Department (FDNY).

The incumbent DOB Commissioner testified that the agency had found thousands of plumbing violations since the new inspection rules were enacted in 2020, but did not elaborate on whether the agency has acted against unlicensed or unskilled workers.

A representative of the union’s legal team raised seven concerns about ineffective enforcement and non-enforcement by the DOB. He also warned of the dangers of illegal work, forged documents, unskilled labor and dangerous shortcuts.

In response to Housing and Buildings Council Chair Pierina Ana Sanchez (District 14/Bronx), the Acting Commissioner explained how the DOB grants gas permits to projects. He pointed out that a master plumber can call the DOB to inspect the gas work, and the agency then only has 48 hours to conduct an inspection. After this period has expired, the head of the department states “that another trade may close the walls”, and the master plumber can then simply request the final inspection of the gas work. During the inspection the “system must be pressurized in the presence of the inspector and keep the pressure unchanged within 30 minutes and as soon as the inspector sees this the system considers the inspection passed and the final gas approval [is] spent.”

This declaration demonstrates that the DOB does not require or routinely inspect installed gas lines or welds, allowing for “self-certification” by the installer. The DOB allows the walls to be closed prior to their presence on site for a “final” check.

Councilor Charles Barron called on the DOB to “get serious about inspections”.

In 2016, the City Council enacted legislative reforms amending the NYC Construction Codes to provide for stricter regulation of work involving hazardous combustible gases, requiring a strict new qualification effective January 1, 2020. and highly qualified professionals were allowed to carry out this important work.

The reforms were in response to the East Harlem gas explosion that occurred on March 12, 2014 and killed eight people. A little over a year later, the East Village gas explosion followed on March 26, 2015, which claimed two lives. Both incidents also caused extensive destruction on neighboring properties.

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