December 16, 2020

A pair of gas explosions in New York City injured nearly a hundred people and took ten lives in 2014 and 2015, shattering the peace of mind of many more East Harlem, East Village, and City residents. In the wake of these tragic explosions, in 2016 the City passed a collection of gas safety legislation aimed at upgrading safety measures by City agencies, utility companies, and building owners. Local Laws 151 to 159 of 2016 represent an effort to ensure that the tragic events of March 12, 2014 and March 26, 2015 would never be repeated in another City neighborhood. That is the origin of Local Law 152 of 2016.

After passage, the Department of Buildings crafted rules that set out the inspection regime. The rules exclude DOB occupancy group R3 from the inspection regime. The rules hold that the first set of inspections in community districts 1, 3, and 10 should be conducted by December 31. The rules also set out a possible $10,000 civil penalty for failure to file the inspection certification before the deadline.

The pandemic upended that timetable. Guidance from public health authorities, Governor Cuomo, and Mayor de Blasio meant having a licensed master plumber conduct a gas pipe inspection simply could not happen for a part of the year. And individuals concerned with keeping their household contacts small meant that even without executive orders and a state of emergency, conducting the inspections could run counter to that goal and put vulnerable people at risk. The pandemic also meant altogether less public bandwidth for messages like upcoming gas pipe inspection deadlines, and more focus on the serious crisis occurring around us.

Introduction 2151-B recognizes that context and proposes changing the current compliance deadline by six months, from the current December 31 deadline to a proposed June 30, 2021 deadline. It also requires a more thoroughgoing effort by the DOB on outreach and notice to impacted communities; Int. 2151-B also directs DOB to pursue more targeted outreach, engage community-based organizations, and take on board feedback from the public. Int. 2151-B is set for a final vote by the City Council on December 17th.

Going forward, City policy has to include consideration of the important safety goals Local Laws 151 through 159 set out, at the same time as recognizing the reality of the pandemic and the challenges buildings encounter in complying with the law. The ultimate goal must be public safety, not collecting penalties and not eroding the equity building owners have built by imposing unreasonable gotcha fines. Colleagues in co-authoring or co-sponsoring this legislation have seen the merit in this approach and include co-author Council Member Dromm and co-sponsors Council Members Kallos, Gjonaj, Brannan, Chin, and Public Advocate Williams – several of whom were also co-sponsors of Local Law 152. The pandemic has required us to be flexible and look again at the context of multiple deadlines set out in law, Int 2151-B is in that spirit of taking a reasonable look and reassessing how we can pursue safety while recognizing the reality the pandemic has imposed on us all.