Lawmakers criticize city for water tank neglect

New York City Water Tank
New York City Water Tank
Frank G. Runyeon

Lawmakers criticize city for water tank neglect

Levine, Torres list fixes for “broken” drinking water oversight.
May 30, 2018

Several key New York City legislators lamented the city’s neglect and lax enforcement of health rules governing the city’s thousands of rooftop drinking water tanks, as described in City & State’s investigation into the thousands of wooden vessels that supply water to millions of New York City residents.

City & State’s reporting showed that as many as two-thirds of building owners with water tanks do not clean and maintain their tanks. Even some city-controlled buildings have not been inspecting and maintaining their tanks in accordance with the law.

“It was a searing indictment of the city and horrifying to read,” New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres, who chairs the Council’s Oversight and Investigations Committee, said of City & State report. Torres said there could be an investigation, an oversight hearing, legislative reforms or administrative reforms – or all of the above – in response to the issues raised by City & State.

“What I found striking is that the Department of Health appears to be complacent about the widespread failure to maintain water tanks and accurately report on the condition of water tanks,” Torres said. “It seems to me the city is content to live in an alternate universe where bacterial growth in water tanks have no bearing on water quality.”

New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson echoed Torres’ concerns.

“New York City is supposed to be the capital of clean drinking water. We live in a civilized society,” Johnson said in a statement. “The thought of us drinking water containing pigeons, rats and insects is abhorrent, horrific and unacceptable. This Council has already taken steps to strengthen oversight of water tank inspections, and my colleagues and I will continue to look into this matter. It is the city’s responsibility to ensure New Yorkers’ drinking water is safe, healthy and free from disease.”

Lawmakers’ reactions to the revelations provided early indications that legislative reforms are afoot in the council, which has power over the agencies that regulate all water tanks and maintain tanks on city buildings.

City Councilman Mark Levine, chairman of the New York City Council Committee on Health, dismissed health officials’ view that reporting inspection observations only after a tank is completely clean and disinfected satisfies the intent of city rules. “NYC's water supply is arguably the safest in the world, but we clearly need to do more to ensure tanks are consistently inspected and maintained – and that should include a requirement that inspectors report on conditions prior to cleaning, not after,” he said in a statement.

Several major water tank cleaning companies said they record their observations of conditions in the water tanks and test for bacteria only after the tanks are scrubbed and bleached. Cleaners said they see the practice as a way to report a successful disinfection process. Health officials previously told City & State that the testing practice is allowed and that they find the spotless inspection reports “useful” in ensuring a tank is cleaned and maintained.

Independent experts and EPA officials consulted by City & State disagreed, saying that testing drinking water in water tanks after they have been cleaned is useless for determining the typical water quality for building inhabitants. Further, they said that inspection guidelines were not specific or rigorous enough in their requirements. Several experts also suggested annual testing may not be frequent enough, based on photographs of the conditions in the tanks.

City & State’s report also found repeated inconsistencies in city paperwork and statements from the Department of Citywide Administrative Services that appeared to contradict observable facts. The roof of a drinking water tank atop offices for the New York City Sanitation Department at 137 Centre St. had rotted away, something green was growing on the wooden tank, and the drinking water supply was exposed to the sky. One tank builder said it was in “deplorable” condition. Still, the agency repeatedly asserted there were no sanitary issues with the water tank.

The New York City Department of Investigation, whose responsibility it is to investigate corruption, abuse and fraud within city government, replied to a request for comment on the inconsistencies in DCAS’ paperwork by saying that, “DOI is aware of the matter and declines further comment.”

Torres said the regulatory framework “is fundamentally broken.”

“The city is failing both as a regulator and as an owner,” Torres said, criticizing the health department’s “hand’s off” enforcement and the Department of Citywide Administrative Services’ neglect of its drinking water tanks. “If the city does not respect its own laws enough to enforce them or comply with them, then no one else will.”

“I think we should be concerned. If substandard water tanks can have implications for public health and water quality, then that’s grounds for concern,” Torres said. “Should we be alarmist? No. But nor should we be denialist, like the Department of Health.”

Torres’ office compiled a list of ideas to address his concerns with the city’s water tanks. The councilman was careful to note that no laws have been drafted yet.

  • A local law establishing a taskforce aimed at developing best practices on water tank maintenance.  
  • A local law establishing a taskforce aimed at improving enforcement of laws regulating water tanks. The taskforce shall consists of DCAS, DEP, DOB, DOHMH, HPD, and whichever agency the Mayor deems necessary.
  • A local law establishing an emergency repair program that enables DOHMH to arrange for a contractor to correct the condition of a poorly maintained water tank and then bill the owner ‎for the cost of the correction.   If the owner fails to pay the cost of the correction, the debt owed to the City shall become a lien against his property.
  • A local law prohibiting disinfection before conducting a bacteriological test on a water tank. Disinfection before testing is known to skew the results.    
  • ‎A local law (1) amending the Housing Maintenance Code to require water tank maintenance and (b) requiring HPD to expand the scope of roof-to-cellar inspections to include water tanks.
  • A local law requiring DCAS to report on the maintenance, inspection, and testing of water tanks in city-owned properties.  The performance of DCAS on water tank maintenance in city-owned properties shall factor into the Mayor's Management Report.
Frank Runyeon
Frank G. Runyeon
is a freelance investigative reporter in New York City.
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