June 6, 2023
More than 2,000 gas work violations logged in NYC since key law took effect: ‘A public safety time bomb’

More than 2,000 gas work violations logged in NYC since key law took effect: ‘A public safety time bomb’

New York City has detected more than 2,000 gas plumbing violations since a set of new rules took effect in 2020 that were tailored to crack down on unlicensed work in that industry, a top official in Mayor Adams’ administration said Monday.

Signed into law by then-Mayor Bill de Blasio, the rules tightened regulations around gas installation, maintenance and repair work in the city, with the goal of preventing another tragedy like the March 2015 East Village gas line explosion that destroyed multiple buildings in the Manhattan neighborhood and killed two people.

At a Monday morning hearing in the City Council, Kazimir Vilenchik, Adams’ acting Buildings Department commissioner, testified that his agency has in the years since the rules were implemented issued at least 2,083 tickets for gas plumbing conducted without proper work permits. That included 1,150 violations in 2021; 842 in 2022, and 91 so far this year, Vilenchik said.

A fire races through buildings after a gas explosion on Second Ave. and E. 7th St. in Manhattan in March 2015.

The post-East Village explosion legislative package made it so that gas work done without permits became designated as “immediately hazardous,” warranting stricter penalties and faster corrective action.

The package also required that all gas pipe work in the city be carried out by plumbers who have obtained so-called “Gas Qualification” licenses from the Department of Buildings. The licensing requirement was seen as especially important in the wake of the East Village inferno because the plumber who helped rig the gas line that exploded did not hold proper credentials to perform the work.

Kazimir Vilenchik, Mayor Adams’ acting Buildings Department commissioner.

The number of violations issued by the DOB for gas work by unlicensed plumbers over the same time span is far lower by comparison — 12 in 2021; 17 in 2022, and zero so far this year, according to data also shared by Vilenchik at the hearing.

But officials with the city’s plumbers union who testified after Vilenchick said those numbers should be taken with a grain of salt.

Patrick Walsh, who serves as the counsel for Plumbers Local 1, alleged the reason the licensing violation numbers are so low is because the DOB hasn’t adequately enforced the rule.

The union, which filed a lawsuit against the DOB in December over the matter, has approached the department with information on specific contractors who routinely tap unlicensed plumbers for gas line work, Walsh said. Union officials have also pointed the department to specific job sites where unlicensed plumbers work, Walsh added.

“DOB, however, refused to investigate the union’s complaints,” Walsh said. “DOB’s abdication of its responsibility to enforce these requirements has created a public safety time bomb.”

An East Village gas explosion destroyed three buildings, causing two deaths and injuring at least 19 people, on Mar. 26, 2015 in Manhattan. The explosion was caused by an illegal tap into a gas main.

Arthur Clarke, another union official at the hearing, said he was especially unnerved by a recent conversation he had with DOB officials in which he said he alerted them that big box stores like Home Depot were connecting customers with unlicensed gas plumbers.

The DOB officials, Clarke alleged, responded by telling him the city should consider relaxing licensing requirements.

“We were all horrified,” Clarke said.

After the hearing, a DOB spokesman suggested the actual number of violations that involved unlicensed plumbers could be higher.

“Our inspectors are much more likely to find just the illegal work itself (in various stages of completeness), rather than finding individuals actively performing the work,” the spokesman said. “In these cases where we can’t definitively say who performed the work, we are issuing the violations to the property owners for their failure to obtain permits for work on their property.”

Front cover of the New York Daily News from Friday, March 27, 2015.

Monday’s hearing came on the heels of Adams proposing to “relax” some building inspection codes in the city in order to pave the way for achieving his goal of constructing 500,000 new units of housing in the next decade. Among Adams’ proposals is shifting the responsibility of some fire safety inspections to the DOB that are currently conducted by the FDNY.

Brooklyn Councilman Charles Barron told Vilenchik at the hearing that the Buildings Department must get more serious about enforcing the rules it already has on its plate.

“This is a life and death issue,” Barron said.

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