Williams Advocates Clean Water Legislation In Council Hearing

February 16th, 2021

Press Release

Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams called for passage of a bill aimed at protecting water quality and ensuring sanitary water supply for New Yorkers at a hearing of the Committee on Environmental Protection today. The bill would increase the monetary penalties to be imposed on a building owner or operator who fails to comply with installation and reporting requirements for water backflow prevention devices.

"Backflow prevention devices stop contamination from entering New York City water. Without them, bacteria, such as salmonella, can spread into water pipes. For businesses such as laundromats, food processing plants, supermarkets, and large residential dwellings, this is pretty dangerous," said Public Advocate Williams at the hearing. "Anyone can experience serious harm, so contamination must be avoided at all costs. This is both an environmental issue and a public health issue."

Under the legislation, Intro. 1576, for failure to install the device, the civil penalty would be $1,000-10,000 and the criminal fine would be $2,000-10,000.  For failure to file an annual report, the civil penalty would be $700-10,000 and the criminal fine would be $1,400-10,000. Backflow prevention devices stop contaminated water from re-entering the main supply, and required for certain properties by state law. This city legislation was originally sponsored by then-Council Member Donovan Richards, now the Queens Borough President.

There were 1,540 violations in 2018 for failing to install a backflow prevention device, according to DEP, and 8,780 violations for not filing a report. In 2019, The New York City Department of Environmental Protection estimated there were 76,472 facilities in the City that require one or more backflow prevention devices. Notably, 45,093, or roughly 59 percent, are considered hazardous facilities.

The Public Advocate noted that "At the Committee's June 25th, 2018 hearing, it was said that these prevention devices can cost anywhere between $3,000 to $20,000. Therefore, if fines are lower, then the owner or operator can just accept the fine as the cheaper option. ," saying "The legislation would eliminate that with steeper penalties and fines." In addition, he expressed support for a bill from Chair Constantinides to amend the sustainable energy loan program, Intro. 2170, which was also discussed at today's hearing, saying "Energy efficiency may be costly for some building owners, so there must be assistance for everyone who is interested in energy efficiency."

Read the full statement from the Public Advocate for today's hearing below, or download it here.

TESTIMONY OF PUBLIC ADVOCATE JUMAANE D. WILLIAMS  TO THE COMMITTEE ON ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION - HEARING FEBRUARY 16, 2021 Good morning,

My name is Jumaane D. Williams, and I'm the Public Advocate for the City of New York. Once again, thanking the chair Costa Constantinides for holding today's hearing.

Our City must do more to address environmental injustice. The longer we wait to correct these problems, the worse off communities, particularly communities of color, will be. I'm proud that one of my first four bills in my first term actually had to do with environmental justice. I'm glad to see these communities get stronger in pushing these concerns. Therefore, we need to be aggressive and proactive in offering solutions. The bills before the Committee today are examples of that. 

My bill, Intro. No. 1576, first introduced by Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, would increase penalties for a building owner or an operator failing to install and report on water backflow prevention devices. Failure to either install the device or annually report on tests could mean either a significantly higher civil penalty or criminal fine. 

Backflow prevention devices stop contamination from entering New York City water. Without them, bacteria, such as salmonella, can spread into water pipes. For businesses, such as laundromats, food processing plants, supermarkets, and large residential dwellings, this is pretty dangerous. Anyone can experience serious harm, so contamination must be avoided at all costs. This is both an environmental issue and a public health issue.

In 2019, The New York City Department of Environmental Protection estimated there were 76,472 facilities in the City that require one or more backflow prevention devices. Notably, 45,093, or roughly 59 percent, are considered hazardous facilities. Therefore, a device must be installed and annually reported on with no excuse. Otherwise, the risks can be severe for occupants, customers, or workers. 

There were 1,540 violations in 2018 for failing to install a backflow prevention device, according to DEP. The number of violations for not filing a report is even higher at 8,780. This is why the legislation is necessary. These prevention devices are vital for New Yorkers. This cannot be done out of convenience. It is a requirement. There are steep penalties for those who do not follow this law.

There is an additional concern with the existing penalties and fines. At the Committee's June 25th, 2018 hearing, it was said that these prevention devices can cost anywhere between $3,000 to $20,000. Therefore, if fines are lower, then the owner or operator can just accept the fine as the cheaper option. The legislation would eliminate that with steeper penalties and fines. New Yorkers must be guaranteed protection, and this bill ensures that. 

I anticipate administration support today for the bill to send a message of accountability. We cannot accept failure to submit an annual report or failure to install these prevention devices. New Yorkers must be given assurances that their health is prioritized.

Finally, I just want to join in supporting the chair's Intro. No. 2170 to amend the sustainable energy loan program to improve energy efficiency in New York City. Any opportunity to do so is useful and reiterates the City's commitment to make a greener New York City.  Energy efficiency may be costly for some building owners, so there must be assistance for everyone who is interested in energy efficiency.

Overall, the bills represent our commitment for a cleaner, safer New York City. I thank the chair again for both allowing me to speak and for co-sponsoring my legislation and of course for his leadership on all of these issues. I look forward to today's testimony.

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