A day after Gov. Andrew Cuomo rolled out new statewide rules for the cooling towers that spawned the deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the Bronx, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed off on the city’s portion of the “joint” regulations on the potentially infectious air conditioning units—declaring it a “huge undertaking” because no such controls ever existed before.
Speaking to reporters at City Hall, Mr. de Blasio acknowledged that his administration will have to work out the minutiae of the new laws with owners of buildings with cooling towers, which will require the landlords to perform quarterly inspections for legionella bacteria, and present certifications to the city that the units have been tested and disinfected. But the mayor said that the task of identifying all the buildings with the towers—a task begun in a few neighborhoods of the Bronx amid the worst of the epidemic—will involve “hundreds of hundreds of city workers” from the Department of Buildings, Department of Health, the Department of Environmental Protection, the Fire Department and even the NYPD’s aviation unit.
“We learned by creating a plan in the South Bronx. There had never been a reason to know where cooling towers were. It was not legally required. We had to require a model for locating every cooling tower,” he said. “We will take matters into our own hands by making sure there are city officials looking for each and every tower so we have an absolute and total universe. And we can do that for the whole City of New York. It will take a lot of work, but we can do it. ”
The Legionnaires’ outbreak, the worst in city history, infected more than 100 people and claimed a dozen lives. Mr. de Blasio today again assured reporters the city had contained the contagion, and tested 38 buildings for the microbes.
Building owners who fail to comply with the new rules will face as much as a year in prison and a $25,000 fine, as well as potential penalties of $2,000 to $10,000 should someone is “seriously hurt” or killed because of the violation.
Mr. de Blasio anticipated the cooperation of nearly all property owners impacted.
“We expect in the vast majority of cases, the building owners will be the ones, of course, who will do the evaluation, do the cleaning, and report it,” he said, even as he acknowledged that compliance will not be universal, and that delays and missed deadlines will occur—at which point the city will step in. “There will be some cases where the building owner is non-responsive, for whatever reason. Again, we will go do that ourselves. But the goal here, the model we developed in the South Bronx, is we will take matters into our own hands.”
The mayor had no figures for how much the investigations and inspections would cost the city. He did promise the Department of Health had and would continue to pay special attention to neighborhoods like the South Bronx where there is higher disease burden.
“There was no precedent for this kind of outbreak, we’re not going to wait to find out what the future brings, we’re going to put up defenses against any outbreak like this in every part of the city,” he said.
Dr. Mary Bassett, the city’s health commissioner, estimated that 60 percent of Legionnaires’ cases are a result of infected towers.
“We will continue to see sporadic cases of Legionnaires’ disease. But this effort will greatly reduce, we anticipate, the risk posed by cooling towers of outbreaks going forward,” she said today.