City and State:
Despite years of reforms, new data reveal widespread neglect in the thousands of weathered wooden water tanks that supply drinking water to millions of New York City residents. A review of city records indicates that most building owners still do not inspect and clean their tanks as the law has required for years, even after revisions to the health and administrative codes that now mandate annual filings.
There are still many thousands of water tanks across the city for which there is no information at all. The city can’t even say with certainty how many there are or where they are located, much less their condition – even well-maintained water tanks accumulate layers of muck and bacterial slime.
Building owners who do self-report the condition of their water tanks provide suspiciously spotless descriptions on annual inspection reports. These reports include bacteriological test results, but in almost every case the tests are conducted only after the tanks have been disinfected, making it a meaningless metric for determining the typical quality of a building’s drinking water. And regulators have issued dramatically fewer violations in recent years.
The data show that the city reported drinking water tanks on municipal buildings, including the city sanitation offices and several court buildings, tested positive for E. coli, a marker used by public health experts to predict the presence of potentially dangerous viruses and bacteria. Oversight remains lax: It took health officials more than a year to investigate several isolated reports of E. coli in drinking water tanks. After inquiries from City & State, however, officials now say that their own reports were erroneous.
But scientists at the federal Environmental Protection Agency and public health experts consulted by City & State warned that animals can easily get into New York City’s water tanks, that mucky sediments inside the tanks may contain pathogens and that poorly maintained water tanks could be the source of disease outbreaks.