Panel considers lifting plastic pipe restrictions

by JIM MILLER , The Press Enterprise

STANDARDS: Opponents say the material, CPVC, poses health risks and threaten to sue.

SACRAMENTO – Whether California begins to ease its limits on plastic
pipe in homes, the subject of an expensive quarter-century battle, will
be known in the coming weeks.

A state environmental review of the pipe, known as CPVC, is
almost complete. Next month, the state building standards commission is
scheduled to consider lifting all CPVC restriction for the 2007 state
plumbing code.

But plastic pipe opponents threaten a lawsuit to block its use if the state tries to allow it.

At stake is the plastic pipe industry’s unfettered access to the
enormous residential plumbing market in California, which now has the
country’s tightest limits on plastic pipe.

Demand for pipe reaches an estimated 500 million feet in a peak home-construction year.

The outcome has added significance for homeowners and builders
in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, where acidic soil and water
have been blamed for eating through traditional copper plumbing in some

"Everybody is tired of the CPVC issue. I think we’ve got a
fighting chance at making this happen," said Harry Moos, a
piping-systems consultant for Noveon, a company that produces the resin
and other materials used to make CPVC.

Proponents contend that the pipe is a safe alternative to
copper pipe. They argue that plumbers unions only oppose CPVC because
it cuts into their livelihood.

But opponents, including the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, say a lot of new-home plumbing work is non-union.

They argue that the study prepared by the state Department of
Housing and Community Development fails to address the risks of plastic
pipe to plumbers, homeowners and air quality.

"It’s much larger and much prettier, but it still doesn’t
address the issues. It’s lipstick on a pig," Tom Enslow, an attorney
for the anti-plastic pipe Safe Building Materials Coalition, said of
the state’s environmental review. The group might file a lawsuit over
the study, he said.

Late last month, the state housing agency backed away from its
request that the building standards commission allow the wholesale use
of non-CPVC plastic pipe in homes. The department needs more time to
address environmental questions about those types of pipe, a
spokeswoman said.

For now, all attention is focused on what happens to CPVC.

Long History

California’s pipe wars began in the early 1980s. Pipe made of
chlorinated polyvinyl chloride, or CPVC, started showing up nationwide
and a state panel recommended that it be allowed here.

A 1989 environmental review judged the pipe to be safe, but
critics disagreed. Six years later, then-Gov. Pete Wilson, a
Republican, approved the statewide use of plastic pipe. Opponents sued,
forcing another environmental review.

The second report also found there were no health risks from
plastic pipe. But critics said the report was inadequate and rushed
through before Wilson left office in early January 1999.

In 2000, then-Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, and pipe
manufacturers reached a compromise: Plastic pipe could be used in
California, but only in places where local building officials
acknowledged that copper piping was at risk. Plumbers also would have
to use gloves and fans when working with the pipe.

During the 2003 recall campaign, though, Schwarzenegger called
for lifting the limits. In early 2005, his housing department made an
aborted attempt to lift the Davis-era restrictions.

The state’s latest environmental review began in April and was complete by mid-summer.

Pipe supporters, though, wanted some changes. A revised report emerged last month.

"The first draft was lacking in sufficient detail, we believed,"
said Jeff Cash, a Noveon business director. The latest review should
better withstand a legal challenge, he said.

But opponents think otherwise. "I think they need to start
over," Enslow said, calling the report inadequate except for a section
addressing the potential impact on air quality from glue used with the

If there is a lawsuit, the person whose office would be
responsible for the state’s defense would be incoming Attorney General
Jerry Brown — who was governor just as the pipe fight was beginning.

Code Book Inclusion

The push to certify the environmental review by next month’s
building standards meeting reflects plastic pipe interests’ desire that
the rule change be part of the actual 2007 state plumbing code book.

There are annual code updates, but the code book itself is published only every three years.

"It certainly is better to be in the book," Cash said.

Dave Walls, the building standards commission’s executive director, said 2007 might be the year for CPVC.

"We’re hoping. Then again, it could end up with a lawsuit," he said.


California has never allowed the unrestricted use of CPVC pipe
in homes. Proponents want to end the limits on the plastic pipe for the
2007 California Plumbing Code. Opponents call the pipe unsafe and want
restrictions imposed in 2000 to stay. Key upcoming dates are:

Dec. 29: End of public comment period for CPVC environmental
review prepared by the state Department of Housing and Community

Jan. 29-31: The California Building Standards Commission will
consider whether to allow CPVC’s unfettered in the next state plumbing