State commission cancels approval of plastic pipe

It isn’t over till it’s over.

For at least three decades, labor and business interests have been engaged in a seesaw battle over the use of plastic pipe in residential construction. Builders favor the inexpensive, light-weight plastic material for its ease of installation, but foes – including construction unions and environmentalists – believe at least one version of the plastic pipe leaches chemicals and poses a health threat.

The latest round follows a decision this month by the state Building Standards Commission, which essentially canceled a 2009 decision involving a popular type of plastic pipe called PEX, for “cross-linked polyethylene,” a seamless, flexible pipe that comes in rolls and can be cut to fit. PEX has a different composition than other, better-known plastic pipes, such as PVC or CPVC.

The commission earlier approved the use of PEX.  But last month, the panel, losing in the courts, changed its mind and withdrew its approval.

“Our concern is that the (earlier) approval didn’t put in sufficient restrictions,” said Tom Enslow, an attorney for the labor-backed Safe Building Materials Coalition. “Some types of PEX are shown to leech MTBE at levels at that exceed California’s safe drinking-water standards,” he said. He noted that safety is the fundamental issue, and not unions seeking to protect the use of copper pipe, since the unions perform relatively little residential construction.

The commission’s action marked yet another twist in the Capitol battle over plastic pipe in general and PEX in particular, which generally has pitted construction unions against builders. Unions and environmentalist say PEX poses environmental hazards, while the builders and manufacturers note that resists corrosion and is used in other states and internationally, and that local governments have authorized its use in California.

“Some 180 local jurisdictions have approved it. It has to be used because in an awful lot of places in California you need to have something to replace copper pipe, and PEX is the leading alternative,” said Kevin Eckery, a spokesman or the coalition of builders and manufacturers known as the Plastic Pipe and Fittings Association.

But the courts disagreed. And as the legal issues linger, the likelihood is that they won’t be resolved until a new governor arrives in January. If that new governor is Jerry Brown, the debate over plastic pipe will have come full circle: It began during his governorship 30 years ago.

Last December, an Alameda County Superior Court ordered the commission to set aside a set of regulations that the commission wrote approving PEX, and said the commission should come up with a new study detailing PEX’s environmental impacts. The court said the earlier study failed to fully identify PEX-linked health issues. The state didn’t appeal the decision, but the PEX supporters did. Last month, an appeals court denied their request to overturn the Superior Court’s decision, leaving it the commission to cancel its earlier approval.

Enslow noted that the political perspectives of those in power through several administrations have affected PEX-related decisions, and that the latest dispute was no exception.

“They are based on experience as much as politics. In this case, it appears that the (Schwarzenegger) administration had an unusual interest in making sure that PEX was approved,” Enslow said.

Meanwhile, the commission is scheduled to take public testimony next month on a on a second, revised EIR, which already has raised concerns from PEX opponents.

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