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Water Cooling Tower Inspection Program Is a Mess

New York City

Inspections Snafu
Nov. 1, 2018

Following a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the Bronx in 2015, the New York City Council passed some of the nation’s toughest laws on the maintenance of rooftop cooling towers, which power central air-conditioners and were determined to be the source of the lethal Legionella bacteria in the Bronx.

But the complexity of the regulations coupled with slipshod paperwork by inspectors led the city to dismiss nearly 90 percent of the cooling-tower cases it heard in 2017 – roughly double the rate for citations issued by other city agencies – according to a new analysis by Gothamist and WNYC.

Out of the more than 27,000 cooling-tower summonses the Health Department handed out last year, approximately 15,700 respondents decided to take their cases to a hearing at the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings. Roughly 14,000 of those cases were dismissed.

The wholesale dismissal of the violations – many on technicalities – comes at a time when the incidence of Legionnaires’ disease is on the rise. Nearly 450 New Yorkers got sick from breathing Legionella bacteria in 2017, a 65 percent increase from the year before. That upward trend is mirrored nationwide.

“The inspection regime that we put in place does give New York City a leg up over most other cities,” said City Council Member Mark Levine, chair of the Committee on Public Health. “But to see how many cases are being dismissed is really worrisome, especially since so many of the dismissals seem to be for technical reasons.”

Michael Bogart, in-house counsel for management company Maxwell-Kates, has had a high success rate getting violations dismissed. “A lot of violations get thrown out because the information was available at the building, but the inspectors don’t ask for it,” Bogart told Habitat last summer. “It’s onerous the way they write these violations. The bottom line is that if you obey the law and keep good records, you can beat the violations. The best defense is compliance with the law.”

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