Paul O'Connor

Paul O’Connor

The following Viewpoint is written by Paul O’Connor, business manager of United Association Plumbers Local No. 1

Last month marked the anniversary of two deadly gas explosions that rocked New York City and led to the passage of new safety laws aimed at ensuring such tragic incidents were not repeated. The Harlem gas explosion that killed eight people occurred on March 12, 2014, followed just more than a year later by the East Village gas explosion that claimed two lives on March 26, 2015. Both incidents also caused major destruction to neighboring properties.

In response to these tragedies—the first tied to faulty gas welding performed by unqualified individuals, the second the result of illegal gas work by the property owner—New York City passed Local Law 150 to establish new "Qualifications for Gas Work.”

This past February 27, the New York City Council held hearings looking into allegations that the New York City Dept. of Buildings (DOB) is “turning a blind eye” to unlawful gas work, detailed in a whistleblower lawsuit filed in New York State Supreme Court. Council leaders offered DOB officials stern warnings to get serious about gas safety.

The United Association Plumbers Local No. 1 shares the New York City Council’s concern and are alarmed by responses from the DOB regarding Local Law 150. This law, which requires DOB to conduct gas weld inspections, is not just a matter of jobs or business competition. It is a matter of life and death.

The members of Plumbers Union Local 1 are staunch advocates of public safety and proper workmanship, and we have been warning about the dangers of faulty gas welds for years. For example, within a two-week period in November 2022, the DOB approved at least 460 gas authorization requests that did not contain any supporting documentation that work was performed by qualified welders. This suggests that the real number of uninspected and unqualified gas work authorized by DOB is much higher.

Gas explosions have caused devastating damage to life and property in New York City, and faulty gas welds have been identified as the root cause of many of these incidents. In addition to the deadly March 2014 and March 2015 gas explosions, in August 2017, a gas explosion in the Bronx killed one person and injured several others. In January 2019, a major gas explosion collapsed a three-story home, killing a 79-year old resident and injuring two senior citizens as well as five police officers. Four buildings had to be demolished and a fifth suffered structural damage. In December 2021, Brooklyn family home exploded while people slept, injuring six and engulfing adjacent building in flames. In February 2022, a gas explosion in Gravesend Brooklyn rendered several families homeless and destroyed two adjacent properties.

These incidents are just a few examples of the disastrous consequences of lax enforcement of safety standards. Meanwhile, when asked about the consequences of gas explosions over the past few years, the acting DOB Commissioner could not recall any examples whatsoever.

The Plumbers Union helped develop and pass Local Law 150 into law in 2016, with a four-year transition period to phase it into practice by 2020. The purpose of this law was to ensure that gas weld plumbers were trained and licensed to meet the higher safety standards required under Local Law 150. Our certified training curriculum for master plumbers has been developed to meet these rigorous safety standards and is designed to test and license plumbers to conduct gas welds safely.

For DOB to not conduct inspections on gas welds and not enforce the licensing requirements is both dangerous and wrong. It is a failure of the enforcement agency to uphold safety laws, putting lives at risk.

Additionally, the lax enforcement harms the economy and exposes various parties to significant threats ranging from death to property destruction to expensive insurance claims from injuries caused by faulty gas welds.

The real question is what happens to the unsuspecting building owners, co-op boards, general contractors, mortgage banks, and insurance companies that fall victim to a failed gas weld?

During that recent New York City Council Oversight Hearing on Gas Line Safety, DOB officials contended that they are not responsible for anything even after they sign off on or authorize gas line work. They shift blame to the Master Plumber, who the DOB allows to self-certify work without DOB safety inspections as required by Local Law 150.

Under these circumstances, if a gas incident or explosion happens, will insurance companies cover defective DOB gas approvals? Where will the legal and professional liability rest?

We know from experience that “bad actors” were prosecuted and sent to jail in the 2015 deadly East Village gas blast. With Local Law 150 now in place, will the entire chain of interested parties become accountable for unlawful gas work?

It is clear that DOB needs to enforce gas weld inspections to improve compliance and discourage unqualified and uncertified workers from doing the highly skilled work without a license.

Some corrective actions include the DOB reinstating the “Buildings Marshal Office” and “NYC Buildings Master Plumber & Master Fire Suppression Piping Contractor License Board” which were disbanded by the agency on or about Nov. 7, 2022. Each played a role in promoting safety and accountability across the construction industry. Moreover, DOB should inspect or re-inspect gas welds as required by Local Law 150. This will ensure the safety and integrity of gas infrastructure servicing buildings.

Going forward, the DOB should adopt the same process that the New York City Dept. of Transportation uses when connecting a gas line from the street to a building for service. This involves verifying every gas certification, qualification, and insurance coverage before the gas line is connected to the property. The same pre-verification steps should be taken when gas lines are being installed during new construction.

Plumbers Union Local 1 stands for safety and upholding the law. We urge DOB to take the necessary steps to enforce gas weld inspections to ensure compliance with Local Law 150. We are ready to work with DOB to develop a plan to achieve this, and we look forward to working towards a safer future for all New Yorkers.

Paul O’Connor is the business manager of United Association Plumbers Local No. 1, which represents more than 6,100 members who install, maintain, and protect most of the plumbing, pipefitting and gasfitting systems in New York City.