Volume 23, Number 3 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | May 28 - June 3, 2010
Collecting all building fines will reduce accidents
By Deborah Glick
West Virginia, Louisiana and New York City. Although these three areas aren’t normally associated with each other, they all share a common trait: safety in these communities has been put in jeopardy by government’s lax regulations and inefficient oversight that have led to avoidable accidents at the cost of human life.
The safety of our community cannot be left in the hands of industries that care only for bottom lines. We have repeatedly seen the tragic results that occur when industries are allowed to police themselves. The idea that companies will act in good faith for the sake of their image is often stated but is not supported by evidence.
We all were horrified by the tragedy in West Virginia where 29 individuals lost their lives inside a mine. Since April 2009, federal regulators cited the mine eight times for “substantial” violations relating to the mine’s methane control plans, and yet those warnings and fines did not correspond to changed behavior by the company. Massey Energy contested these violations, denied its wrongdoing and continued with the status quo. The federal government could have forcibly acted to close this mine but it did not, and as a result innocent people were killed.
In Lousiana, 11 people were killed when an offshore drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. In addition, the environmental damage that this accident will cause may rival that of the Exxon Valdez spill in sensitive land in Alaska. To this day, the sands in the Prince William Sound have oil contamination, 21 years after the event. It is not surprising to learn that the oil rig lacked a device — known as an acoustic control — that would’ve served as a safeguard of last result. Regulators were considering requiring it a few years ago, but after the industry objected to the cost, $500,000, it was decided that additional studies were necessary.
Reflecting upon these tragedies, my thoughts turn to New York City, where our communities face a risk from one of our region’s biggest industries — construction and development. Scores of New Yorkers have been displaced, and in some cases killed, due to lax oversight and regulation by the city administration. Fines are levied but never collected. Promises are made but not kept. Phony demolitions occur that destroy rent-stabilized units in order to make way for glassy condos that few can afford. And the number of building inspectors has decreased from 800 in the 1990s to 426 today. While developers and building owners receive fines that seemingly disappear into thin air, with no incentive to correct their actions, everyday citizens are penalized at an alarming rate. Traffic tickets have surged 42 percent since Mayor Bloomberg took office. The city has hired 793 more traffic enforcement agents and doubled some penalties, collecting 64 percent more fines in 2008 than it did in 2002.
And while the Department of Finance is unable to collect millions of dollars of fines from building owners, when an everyday resident receives a parking ticket, she pays it or risks having her car being impounded. It is inexplicable that building owners who do not pay their fines face no similar sanction. It is all the more disturbing when one considers the cost to the city and taxpayers of responding to an emergency when a building facade falls onto the sidewalk, or a building collapses. Facing tough fiscal constraints, how can we afford to forgo the roughly $202 million these building fines represent?
As we have seen repeatedly, just because an industry claims that increased regulation will damage its business does not mean that regulation should be eased. A priority of government is to protect its citizens. When we let industries disregard safety regulations, and don’t enact severe punishment when operators break the rules, an environment is created that gives rise to the types of pointless, easily avoidable accidents that take a toll in money, lives and trust in government.
Glick is an assemblymember for the 66th District