On Monday, February 27, 2023, the NYC Council Committees on Oversight and Investigations and Housing and Buildings, chaired by Council Member Gale Brewer and Council Member Pierina Sanchez respectively, held a hearing on the NYC Department of Buildings’ (DOB) enforcement of gas qualifications pursuant to Local Law 150 of 2016 (LL150). This hearing was in all likelihood held in response to UA Plumbers Local No.1’s lawsuit against DOB for failure to properly enforce LL150 gas qualifications and pipe welder qualification requirements.
The joint Committees first heard from DOB Acting Commissioner Kazimir Vilenchik, P.E., and DOB Deputy Commissioner of External Affairs, Guillermo Patino. While DOB testified to the fact that more than 2000 gas related violations have been issued since LL150 was enforced in January 2020, there were many unanswered questions asked by the Council that the industry was also hoping would be answered by DOB. This includes the in-the-field enforcement of gas cards and transparency on DOB NOW of the gas and welder information, specifically on the front end of the permitting process. When Council Member Charles Barron asked how many gas explosions have occurred in the City in the past decade, the answer went from unsure to three, which the industry knows is inaccurate. There were multiple in 2022 alone.
Following the DOB testimony was Patrick Walsh, attorney for Plumbers Local 1, and Arthur Klock of the Joint Apprentice Training Committee, a jointly funded labor/management trade school, at which Mr. Klock is the director. Mr. Walsh provided a background of the multiple notifications given to DOB of apparent gas and pipe welder qualification violations, which Mr. Walsh says were ignored. Mr. Klock testified on seven major gas safety issues that need to be addressed: 1) improper or nonexistent pipe welder qualifications; 2) appliance stores doing regulated gas work illegally; 3) arbitrary elimination of the Master Plumbers License Board; 4) lack of enforcement of the requirement for a “gas work qualification”; 5) disbanding of the Office of the Buildings Marshal; 6) elimination of the reporting requirements for “ordinary plumbing work”; and 7) ineffective enforcement of hundreds of improper gas safety inspections.
Next, the Plumbing Foundation, Association of Contracting Plumbers of New York City (ACP), and Master Plumbers Council (MPC) testified. April McIver, Executive Director of the Plumbing Foundation, highlighted her confusion on staffing at the DOB. She believed DOB is understaffed which is one reason for underenforcement, but the Commissioner said otherwise. She also emphasized the importance that DOB NOW shows DOB gas qualifications on the front end of the permitting process and that Local Law 152 of 2016 (periodic gas inspections) documents are readily available to the public; otherwise, someone has to submit a FOIL request to view them. She also said that there has been no response from DOB on where to send illegal plumbing tips since the Buildings Marshal office was disbanded. She urged the Council to review her written testimony which explains more comprehensive recommendations, including reinstating the License Board and proposed revisions to LL152.
Terence O’Brien, who is both the Executive Vice President of the ACP and Senior Director of the Plumbing Foundation, also submitted comprehensive written testimony. During oral testimony, he highlighted for the Council that the 2016 DOB leadership opposed the gas safety laws and he implored the City Council to review staffing at DOB during budget negotiations, specifically for inspectors at DOB. While he empathized with the Department, he said there are fundamental flaws that need to be addressed for better gas safety and transparency.
Lastly, the MPC emphasized the importance of enforcing gas safety laws and the pending legislation before the Council, including reinstatement of the License Board, ordinary plumbing work, and LL152 revisions.
When Council Member Brewer asked the panel what type of staffing should be improved at DOB, Ms. McIver said if there are staffers wearing multiple hats at DOB, that should be changed so there is staff specifically dedicated to gas safety. Mr. O’Brien said the DOB previously engaged in sting operations which were effective. Council Member Pierina Sanchez asked about the 311 process. Ms. McIver explained that she forwarded anonymous illegal plumbing tips directly to DOB and not through 311, but she is unsure of where to now send those tips, but her own personal experience with 311 did not result in any follow up. Mr. O’Brien said the Marshals office would provide a tracking number so one can follow up. He also explained the function of BSIU. Mr. Bassolino highlighted the importance of the License Board as a forum to advise the Department on illegal plumbing tips.
Council Member Brewer said the conversation on gas safety will continue and the written testimony provided will be reviewed in following up with the Department. The Plumbing Foundation commends the NYC Council and specifically Council Members Brewer and Sanchez for holding the hearing on one of the most important topics for the plumbing industry: gas safety. We will continue to discuss improvements to gas safety enforcement with the Department and Council.