New York Presses U.N. on Safety Issues
Saturday, August 11, 2007
UNITED NATIONS, Aug. 10 -- The administration of New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has demanded that U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon resolve hundreds of safety violations that are endangering the lives of thousands of U.N. employees and visitors at the United Nations' gleaming Manhattan headquarters.
The New York City commissioner for the United Nations, Marjorie B. Tiven, wrote Ban in a July 30 letter that the 39-story building, which plays host to international diplomats and world leaders, is a firetrap. Tiven -- who is Bloomberg's sister -- insisted that the United Nations begin installing the basic safety features required in all of the city's buildings by Sept. 24, including an automatic sprinkler system, smoke alarms and a notification system that alerts the fire department when a fire starts.
"The city cannot allow this situation to continue," wrote Tiven, who hinted that the city might halt U.N. tours. "You are putting at risk the lives of the people who work and visit the United Nations, as well as the public safety personnel who would respond to an emergency. We implore you to act now."
The dispute marks the latest in a history of tension between the United Nations and New York City, which have clashed over a wide range of issues including U.N. policy on Israel and unpaid parking tickets. But Bloomberg, who paid a visit to Ban in April, has supported the United Nations, sending his sister to the state capital to battle GOP lawmakers who have pressed the United Nations to leave New York.
The landmark U.N. building was equipped with state-of-the-art safety features when it was built 57 years ago. But it has fallen on hard times, as aging electrical and heating systems have outlasted their intended life spans. The United Nations employs an army of workers to repair chronic leaks and rusty plumbing, and to combat contamination from lead paint and asbestos. It has also created a machine shop to fashion spare parts for obsolete machinery.
U.N. officials said they recognize that the building does not meet the city's safety standards. They said they have struggled for years to persuade the United States and the other 191 member nations to finance a multibillion-dollar renovation project for the headquarters. The project, known as the Capital Master Plan, has finally received funding but is not scheduled for completion until the end of 2014.
"The Capital Master Plan is going to take care of all these things, however, not in the short term," said Werner Schmidt, a spokesman for the effort. "We'll gut the building and bring it up to code."
Lena Dissin, an official in the U.N. Department of Management, said that the United Nations is taking steps to address the city's concerns but that it is constrained by the high costs of complying with city regulations, particularly since any repairs may have to be torn out once the renovation of the building begins. "We don't have a pot of money," she said. "If we install a fire sprinkler system in the entire building and they will have to be torn out, this is not something the members states will be happy about."
In her letter, Tiven wrote that the city has pressed the United Nations for two years to comply with basic safety standards but that it has failed to respond promptly. She said it took eight months for the United Nations to agree to permit fire inspectors into U.N. headquarters. She faulted the U.N. undersecretary general for management, Alicia Bárcena Ibarra of Mexico, for resolving only 15 percent of the more than 866 safety violations documented by city inspectors in several U.N. facilities. She also complained that Bárcena's schedule for beginning construction after mid-November is "unacceptable."
Tiven's remarks were first reported in the New York Sun last month.
"If a fire or explosion of any kind were to occur at the United Nations, you could not assume that the FDNY [New York Fire Department] has been notified and is sending fire and rescue personnel," Tiven wrote. "It goes without saying that if these issues are not addressed . . . New York City will have no choice but to take such other steps as it deems appropriate to insure safety of would-be visitors and students to, and employees of, the United Nations."
Dissin said that the United Nations has activated a notification system since Tiven's letter arrived and asserted that it will hire a contractor by the end of September to install a smoke detector system. She also said the United Nations has agreed to build fire walls in the building's open spaces to slow the possible spread of fire. "Obviously, we're not moving as fast as Ms. Tiven would like, but we're trying to expedite the process. It is a priority to ensure the safety of all people in this building."
Tiven did not respond to a request for comment.
"New York City wants these issues resolved as quickly as possible, and we're working with the United Nations to do this, but we have not reached an agreement yet," said Stu Loeser, a Bloomberg spokesman. "In particular, we still disagree significantly on the time frame to correct these violations."