City Admits: We Still Don't Know Where All the Cooling Towers Are

By Sean Carlson

The City Council passed landmark legislation in 2015 in the wake of the deadliest outbreak of Legionnaires' Disease in New York history requiring that every cooling tower be found, registered and inspected regularly.

Three years later, the city still isn't sure if it's found all of them.

Cooling towers are a piece of rooftop air conditioning equipment. On Tuesday, after a WNYC/Gothamist report found widespread noncompliance among the owners of the city's 6,000 registered cooling towers, health department officials testified at a City Council hearing that was debating new legislation on the towers. So, they were asked, about how many cooling towers aren't registered?

"There are certainly some," a health department spokesman told the committee. They would not say just how many, but added that the city is "closing in" on finding all of them.

Health committee chair Councilman Mark Levine — whose district in Upper Manhattan has seen two clusters of Legionnaires' Disease this year alone — pushed back.

"In both clusters in my district you identified unregistered towers just in that little neighborhood, so there must be many around the city," he said. While he praised the city's law to regulate cooling towers, he said the ones left unregistered are a problem.

"If the owner just ignores the whole thing and doesn't even report the existence of the tower to the city, then they could be doing nothing there," he said.

The health department says it uses a variety of tactics to locate unregistered cooling towers, which included using experts to "look around" when out in the city. It also has used satellite imagery to locate cooling towers on the roofs of buildings.

The proposed legislation would increase the frequency that cooling tower owners must report inspection results to the city, and notify owners about important dates. Officials say an online portal will go live next year to assist building owners and the public.

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