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Attorney General James reaches agreement with Verizon to prevent legionnaire’s disease

New York Attorney General Letitia James announced today that she has reached an agreement with Verizon to ensure that the company takes swift and comprehensive action to prevent the spread of Legionnaires’ disease in New York state. Legionnaires’ disease is often deadly and can be spread by poorly monitored or operated building cooling towers. An investigation by the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) found that since 2017, there were at least 225 alleged violations of city and state laws at 45 of Verizon’s cooling tower locations throughout the state, with the company failing to conduct testing, address positive test results, and clean and inspect the cooling towers by required deadlines. As part of the agreement, Verizon will adopt official policies and procedures to ensure full, ongoing compliance with the law and pay a $118,000 penalty for the violations, which will be used by OAG to address the health impacts of air pollution.

“Legionnaires’ disease remains a deadly presence in areas across our state, particularly in low-income communities and communities of color,” said Attorney General James. “It is essential that companies such as Verizon are taking the necessary actions to avoid the spread of this preventable and lethal disease. This agreement will protect New Yorkers’ public health and slow the spread of Legionnaires’ disease.”

Finger Lakes Partners (Billboard)

Legionnaires’ disease is a harmful form of pneumonia that is contracted by inhaling water droplets that contain Legionella bacteria. Symptoms of the disease include cough, shortness of breath, high fever, and muscle aches, and presents greatest risk for people 50 years of age or older, current or former smokers, and those with a chronic lung disease or compromised immune systems. Rooftop cooling towers, which are part of some buildings’ cooling systems, are considered a significant source of public exposure to Legionnaires’ disease. If not maintained and monitored properly, they can provide an ideal environment for the growth of Legionella and can expose and infect nearby communities due to the mist of water emitted into the air.

Between 200 and 800 cases of Legionnaires’ disease are diagnosed in New York state each year, although the actual number of infections may be higher as many go undiagnosed or unreported. New York City has seen a series of lethal outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease in recent months, with 24 people infected in the Bronx, leading to two confirmed deaths and several hospitalizations. The Bronx previously experienced an outbreak in 2015 that sickened 120 people and led to at least 12 deaths. Following the 2015 outbreak, both the state and city adopted laws designed to prevent Legionella growth in cooling towers and required building owners to adhere to a suite of safety, maintenance, and reporting requirements related to their cooling towers, with civil penalties for non-compliance.

In 2019, OAG began an investigation into several owners of cooling towers in New York state, including Verizon, that appeared to have significant gaps in reporting requirements under state law. The investigation revealed that since 2017, approximately 225 alleged violations of state and city cooling tower laws had occurred at approximately 45 buildings throughout New York state with cooling towers owned by Verizon. The company maintains and manages its cooling towers within the state through contractors and vendors. The violations identified at Verizon-owned buildings included alleged failures to timely test water samples from cooling towers for Legionella and other bacteria, failures to properly take corrective action in response to positive test results, and failures to timely complete cleaning, disinfection, and inspection of cooling towers. The OAG found several causes for the alleged violations, including disorganized accountability, communication and tracking failures, and a lack of central policies and procedures within the company.

Under the agreement, Verizon must establish a range of practices and procedures that will increase accountability and tracking, including:

  • Ensuring that building managers, whether Verizon employees or third-party contractors, report to and are accountable to environmental health and safety compliance personnel with regard to cooling tower compliance responsibilities;
  • Maintaining a centralized tracking system for cooling tower compliance deadlines, including corrective action deadlines as they may arise;
  • Notifying senior Verizon management about any violation at a cooling tower, or when any laboratory report is received showing Legionella or other bacteria test results above specified concentrations; and
  • Performing an annual audit for compliance with these policies and procedures.

Additionally, the agreement requires Verizon to pay a penalty of $118,000 to be used by OAG to fund projects that prevent, abate, mitigate, or control air pollution or its health impacts.

The OAG’s investigation into other cooling tower owners in New York state for compliance with anti-Legionnaires’ disease laws is ongoing.

This matter is being handled by OAG’s Environmental Protection Bureau and led by Assistant Attorneys General Channing Wistar-Jones and Gavin G. McCabe, Legal Assistant Amanda Moody, and Deputy Bureau Chief Monica Wagner, all under the supervision of Bureau Chief Lemuel M. Srolovic, and by Senior Data Analyst Akram Hasanov of OAG’s Research and Analytics Department under the supervision of Deputy Director Megan Thorsfeldt and Director Jonathan Werberg. The Environmental Protection Bureau is a part of the Division for Social Justice, which is led by Chief Deputy Attorney General Meghan Faux and overseen by First Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Levy.