State commission rescinds 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 reversed itself on 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, well-known plastic pipes, such as PVC or CPVC.

The commission earlier approved the use of PEX.  But last month, the panel, challenged 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, which has opposed the use of PEX. “Some types of PEX are shown to leech MTBE at levels that exceed California’s safe drinking-water standards,” he said. He noted that safety is the fundamental issue, not unions seeking to protect the use of copper pipe, since the unions perform relatively little residential construction with PEX.

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 environmentalists say PEX poses environmental hazards, while the builders and manufacturers note that it 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 for the coalition of builders and manufacturers known as the Plastic Pipe and Fittings Association.

“This is really a union-versus-manufacturers issue here. The rest of the world has no problem with PEX. It’s been used around the world with no problems,” he added.

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 to the commission to cancel its earlier approval.

The Building Standards Commission has put together a revised EIR and is soliciting comment on the proposal through July 19. The revision already has raised concerns from PEX opponents. The commission is scheduled to meet in August to decide whether to amend or adopt the revised EIR, and could approve another regulation as early as September, although the process could take several more months.

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.

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