April 15, 2016
By Steven Wishnia
New York, NY – In the aftermath of three fatal explosions in slightly more than two years, the City Council is beginning to consider a ten-bill package intended to improve the safety of the city’s aging residential fuel-gas systems. For Plumbers Union Local 1, the top measure on the agenda would require anyone working on gas lines to be certified by the city.
Right now, the master plumber holds the license, but his employees are not required to have any training to attest to their skill or knowledge of the fuel-gas code,” Local 1 Business Manager John J. Murphy said before a Council hearing Apr. 12. Barbers and nail-salon workers must have licenses, and plumbers need to be certified to work with medical-gas systems that pump nitrogen and oxygen, he added. “It should be the same with natural gas.”
Council Housing and Buildings Committee chair Jumaane Williams (D-Brooklyn) said the legislation is necessary to prevent further disasters like the East Harlem explosion that killed six people in 2014 and the East Village blast that killed two and demolished three buildings on Second Avenue last year. The ten bills include measures that would have the city inspect gas systems in apartment buildings every four years, require gas-service operators to notify the city Department of Buildings within 24 hours if gas is turned off for safety reasons, and mandate methane detectors in apartments. Intro 738 would require anyone installing, repairing, testing or maintaining fuel-gas pipes to have at least 200 hours of experience and pass a written test.
The Buildings Department and the Master Plumbers Council both oppose Intro 738. It would “severely restrict” the number of plumbers available to work on gas systems, Commissioner Rick Chandler told the committee. The department estimates that there are about 10,000 plumbers working in the city, but only about 1,500 are registered as master plumbers or journeymen. Additional training wouldn’t have prevented the Second Avenue disaster, said Chief of Plumbing Enforcement Shawn Jones, because that was caused by illegal alterations.
The training requirement would be an “unnecessary added burden,” Master Plumbers Council President Darren Lundin told the panel. That might endanger the public more, executive director John DeLillo testified, because repairs might be delayed if there weren’t workers available. Any work done is tested by “operator qualified” inspectors from Con Ed or National Grid before the gas is turned back on, he added.
Local 1 has 4,000 members “who could meet that qualification instantly,” says training director Arthur Klock. “This is not an insurmountable burden to anyone who claims to be a professional in the industry. It’s basic code knowledge,” he told the Council. “It’s not going to be a crisis where you don’t have a workforce.”
Councilmembers Mark Levine (D-Manhattan), Intro 738’s lead sponsor, and Elizabeth Crowley (D-Queens) questioned the master plumbers if they were comfortable with their employees working on gas lines when they themselves are not on the job site to supervise them. “Yes,” said DeLillo. “We believe they’re already trained,” said Leonard Williams. Otherwise, he added, master plumbers wouldn’t let them work.
“We are in favor of additional training,” said Con Ed vice president of gas engineering Mary Kelly. Operator-qualified workers at the utility, which provides gas to Manhattan, the Bronx, and part of Queens, must pass a written test, recertify periodically, and be tested for alcohol and drug use, she said. At National Grid, which supplies Brooklyn, Staten Island, and the rest of Queens, they must meet Department of Transportation standards, Con Ed director of public affairs David Gmach said.
Transport Workers Union Local 101, which represents National Grid gas-delivery drivers, backed the proposed legislation, but said it did not address the safety of gas lines and piping before they reach buildings. In the last year, President Michael Conigliaro testified, National Grid has more than tripled the number of outside contractors it uses for street work, and “with 22 inspectors reviewing and approving the work of 71 outside contractors, inspectors have been instructed to make their instructions by telephone. That’s right, telephone.”