December 2004

California Court Declares Environmental Review Necessary for MTBE-Leaching Plastic Water Pipes

Los Angeles, CA— After three years of litigation, the California Court of Appeals in Los Angeles ruled that a controversial plastic drinking water pipe known as PEX (cross-linked polyethylene) must go through an environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”). Studies have shown that PEX pipes leach MTBE and benzene into drinking water, that PEX may prematurely decay and rupture, and that the flammable material may allow fires to spread rapidly through homes with PEX plumbing. The court therefore upheld the decision of California’s Building Standards Commission to conduct thorough environmental review before deciding whether to allow the use of PEX.

“This ruling affirms the Pipe Trades Council’s long-standing commitment to the protection of public health through safe drinking water systems,” stated Ted A. Reed, executive director of the California State Pipe Trades Council. “For over 25 years the Pipe Trades Council has fought for plumbing standards that will provide the public with safe, clean drinking water. Today the Court of Appeals reaffirmed this commitment.”

The California Pipe Trades Council has advocated public review of proposed new plumbing materials to ensure their safety before the materials are approved for use in homes, schools and offices throughout California. Many concerns raised by the Council, including the leaching of toxic chemicals in plastic pipes into drinking water, have proven valid in the past. The advocacy of the Council and other concerned groups has protected the health and safety of all Californians from hazardous materials and saved the homeowners in this state from the catastrophic damages suffered throughout the rest of the country from defective plastic piping systems.

The case has been brewing since at least 2001 when the State first considered allowing the use of PEX. The California State Pipe Trades Council was joined by numerous environmental and consumer groups, including the Sierra Club, the Planning and Conservation League, Consumer Federation, Communities for a Better Environment, the Center for Environmental Health and the California Professional Firefighters Association in urging thorough environmental review of PEX. The groups pointed out that other plastic drinking water pipe materials have been shown to have serious environmental problems such as leaching of toxic chemicals and premature rupture, and that PEX appeared to share some of these same problems.

The Plastic Pipe and Fittings Association (PPFA) argued that the State should be required to allow the use of PEX without any environmental review at all. When the State decided to conduct environmental review, the PPFA sued the State in Los Angeles Superior Court and obtained a trial court order requiring the State to allow the use of PEX without any environmental review.

In November, a unanimous panel of three justices of California’s Second District Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s order on all grounds and directed the trial court to vacate its order. The Court of Appeals emphasized the substantial expert evidence that PEX pipe may pose serious environmental and public health hazards. In light of such hazards the Court of Appeals found environmental review to be necessary.

“We learned from asbestos, lead paint, and CPVC pipes that building materials can and do have a huge impact on human health and the environment,” stated Tim Frank, senior policy advisor for the Sierra Club. “By agreeing that building materials should be studied before we allow them to be used in people’s homes, the Court of Appeals has helped avert future disasters like asbestos insulation and polybutylene pipe.”

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