Council Passes Bill to Regulate Cooling Towers After Deadly Legionnaires’ Outbreak

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito with Mayor Bill de Blasio and Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson. (Photo: William Alatriste for the New York City Council)

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito with Mayor Bill de Blasio and Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson. (Photo: William Alatriste for the New York City Council)

Following the worst outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in New York City history, the City Council passed a bill this afternoon that will require all cooling towers to be registered with the Department of Buildings.

City officials do not currently know how many cooling towers–which have been pegged to a deadly spread of Legionnaires’ in the South Bronx–there are in the five boroughs.

“As the city works to ensure that everyone who is suffering from Legionnaires’ disease is getting proper treatment, we must also look to the source of the problem,” Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said. “We’re in the midst of a crisis in New York City, and this Council is taking swift action to address what is happening.”

Since early July, 12 New Yorkers have died of Legionnaires’, a pneumonia-like disease that is typically treatable. More than 100 in the Bronx have been sickened.

The airborne disease can be spread through water vapor emitted from cooling towers; newer industrial and commercial buildings use the towers to remove heat when the weather is warmer.

The bill comes a week after Mayor Bill de Blasio issued an executive order for all building owners to immediately clean and disinfect their cooling towers within 14 days. The legislation, the result of a collaboration between state and city officials following yet another public spat between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mr. de Blasio, will mandate all existing cooling towers be registered within 30 days of the law’s enactment and new towers to be registered before they go online.

Ms. Mark-Viverito and council members framed the bill as a swift and much-needed response to a public health emergency. The de Blasio administration endured criticism from several elected officials, including Comptroller Scott Stringer, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., for not acting fast enough to prevent deaths. (All are viewed as rivals of the mayor.) Public health officials, however, praised City Hall’s response today.

Owners of buildings that include cooling towers will be required to conduct quarterly inspections in accordance with Department of Health regulations and provide annual certification that cooling towers have been inspected, tested, cleaned and distinfected to the DOB. DOH will also conduct random audits at an ongoing basis.

Owners will be required to develop a maintenance plan and program “conforming with current engineering standards to prevent” Legionnaires’. “This has to be a true partnership between the city and private sector,” Ms. Mark-Viverito said.

The biggest change in the bill between a hearing on Tuesday and today was the severity of penalties for building owners who don’t comply with the new regulations. An earlier version of the bill gave owners 60 days, not 30, to register cooling towers. There was no mention of criminal penalties, which will now be enforced.

A building owner who does not obey an order from DOH requiring cleaning and disinfection faces up to one year in prison and a $25,000 fine. Other civil penalties range from $2,000 to $10,000 if someone is “seriously hurt” or killed as a result of the violation.

Ms. Mark-Viverito said this bill is a “model” for regulations to be issued statewide.

“The fine structure is one that is gonna really ensure that its compliance is a very serious matter,” she said.