Bursting pipes. Leaks. Public health scares.
America is facing a crisis over its crumbling water infrastructure, and fixing it will be a monumental and expensive task.
Two powerful industries, plastic and iron, are locked in a lobbying war over the estimated $300 billion that local governments will spend on water and sewer pipes over the next decade.
It is a battle of titans, raging just inches beneath our feet.
“Things are moving so fast,” said Reese Tisdale, president of the water advisory firm Bluefield Research. And it’s a good thing, he says: “There are some pipes in the ground that are 150 years old.”
How the pipe wars play out — in city and town councils, in state capitals, in Washington — will determine how drinking water is delivered to homes across America for generations to come.
Traditional materials like iron or steel currently make up almost two-thirds of existing municipal water pipe infrastructure. But over the next decade, as much as 80 percent of new municipal investment in water pipes could be spent on plastic pipes, Bluefield predicts.
The outcome of the rivalry will also determine the country’s response to an infrastructure challenge of epic proportions.
By 2020, the average age of the 1.6 million miles of water and sewer pipes in the United States will hit 45 years. Cast iron pipes in at least 600 towns and counties are more than a century old, according to industry estimates. And though Congress banned lead water pipes three decades ago, more than 10 million older ones remain, ready to leach lead and other contaminants into drinking water from something as simple as a change in water source.
As many as 8,000 children were exposed to unsafe levels of lead in Flint, Mich., after the city switched to a new water supply but failed to properly treat the water with chemicals to prevent its lead pipes from disintegrating. Corroding iron pipes, meanwhile, have been linked to two outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease in Flint that added to the public health emergency.
The plastics industry has seized on the post-Flint fears.
The American Chemistry Council, a deep-pocketed trade association that lobbies for the plastics industry, has backed bills in at least five states — Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina, Indiana and Arkansas — that would require local governments to open up bids for municipal water projects to all suitable materials, including plastic. A council spokesman, Scott Openshaw, criticized the current bidding process in many localities as “virtual monopolies which waste taxpayer money, drive up costs and ultimately make it harder for states and municipalities to complete critical water infrastructure upgrades.”
Opponents of the industry-backed bills, including many municipal engineers, say they are a thinly veiled effort by the plastics industry to muscle aside traditional pipe suppliers.
“It’s simply catering to an industry that is trying to use legislation to gain market share,” Stephen Pangori of the American Council of Engineering Companies testified this year before a Michigan Senate committee.
To more directly reach towns and counties across the country, the plastics industry is also leaning on the American City County Exchange, a new group that gives corporations extraordinary capacity to influence public policy at the city and county levels. The group operates under the auspices of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a wider effort funded by the petrochemicals billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch that has drawn scrutiny for helping corporations and local politicians write legislation behind closed doors.
Corporations pay membership fees as high as $25,000 to gain access to some 1,500 mayors and local council members who have signed up for the initiative. At a July convention in Denver that brought together about three dozen local legislators, Bruce Hollands, executive director of the plastic pipe industry group Uni-Bell PVC Pipe Association, discussed what had gone wrong in Flint, and explained what needed to be done to open up local bidding for plastic water pipes. To spur local decision-making, the A.C.C.E. has also adopted model legislation pushing for more open bidding for water pipes.
“We’re just trying to take up policies that limit the size of government, that keep it from growing exponentially,” said Jon Russell, national director of the A.C.C.E. and a councilman from the town of Culpeper, Va.
Plastics are an obvious replacement for the country’s aging pipes. Lightweight, easy to install, corrosion-free and up to 50 percent cheaper than iron, plastic pipes have already taken the place of copper as the preferred material for service lines that connect homes to municipal mains, as well as water pipes inside the home.
Still, some scientists warn that the rapid replacement of America’s water infrastructure with plastic could bring its own health concerns.
Scientists are just starting to understand the effect of plastic on the quality and safety of drinking water, including what sort of chemicals can leach into the water from the pipes themselves, or from surrounding groundwater contamination. Studies have shown that toxic pollutants like benzene and toluene from spills and contaminated soil can permeate certain types of plastic pipes as they age. A 2013 review of research on leaching from plastic pipe identified more than 150 contaminants migrating from plastic pipes into drinking water.
“Plastics are being installed without any real understanding of what they’re doing to our drinking water,” said Andrew J. Whelton, assistant professor of civil engineering at Purdue University, and an author of the 2013 study. “We don’t know what chemicals we’re being exposed to.”
Sensing an opening, the iron pipe industry has started a public relations push of its own, voicing concerns over plastic, wooing President Trumpwith accolades for his infrastructure drive and setting up a war between the two industries.
“Iron is just more durable. It’s a more proven material,” said Patrick Hogan, president of the Ductile Iron Pipe Research Association, the industry’s main lobby group. “Iron’s been in the ground for 100 years.”
Plastic groups have criticized the studies, saying they focus on older generations of plastic piping and conflate different types of plastics. They also stress that their pipes are independently tested by the third-party organization.
“It’s not a new material. It’s a safe material. It’s independently tested,” said Mr. Hollands, executive director of the Uni-Bell plastic pipes group.
The industry outreach, at times, has been more overt.
At the height of Flint’s water crisis, the chief executive of one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of plastic pipes, JM Eagle, traveled to the beleaguered city and offered to replace the city’s lead pipes at no cost.
Pipes from JM Eagle would last 100 years and are a long-lasting and safe solution, the company’s chief executive, Walter Wang, told the City Council last February. “This water crisis, this contamination issue,” he said, “it’s hurting children and making them sick.”
JM Eagle, however, has faced recent legal problems. In 2013, a federal jury in California found that the Los Angeles-based company had defrauded states and municipalities for more than a decade by knowingly selling defective water pipes. In some places, PVC pipes that were supposed to last 50 years exploded in their first year, causing injuries and flooding.
JM Eagle declined to comment but has previously said the litigation was based on “scurrilous allegations” by a disgruntled former employee. Formosa Plastics, a Taiwanese industrial conglomerate that was its parent company at the time, agreed to pay $22.5 million in a settlement with municipalities and other government agencies in California.
The uncertainty over potable water pipes of all kinds is exacerbated by a lack of regulation over their safety. There is no federal oversight of the materials or processes used to manufacture plastic water pipes; instead, water pipes are certified and tested by an organization paid for by industry.
That organization, NSF International, displays a picture of the Capitol building on its regulatory resources web page and runs a hotline for questions on regulations and product safety. Yet it has never received regulatory authority from the federal government. Nor does it disclose test results for the pipes it certifies.
NSF International called its testing robust. “If a product does not meet the requirements of a standard, it will not pass,” said Dave Purkiss, the organization’s general manager of water systems.
For now, Flint is fitting the city with service lines made with another material: copper, at an expected cost of more than $140 million. Officials discussed creating a pilot area using plastic to replace the service lines to houses on several city blocks, according to Plastics News, though a Flint spokeswoman, Kristin Moore, said plastic pipes were not currently under consideration.
“When you take that inherent issue that we needed to rebuild trust of the citizens in the water system, we felt that copper was the way to go,” Michael McDaniel, a retired Michigan National Guard brigadier general put in charge of replacing Flint’s water pipes, said at a conference this year.
In Burton, just next door to Flint, budget realities have made plastics the realistic choice.
The small city of 29,000 saved $2.2 million by using plastic to replace its own 1930s-era water system after state regulators alerted the city to critically needed fixes. For a municipality struggling with a dwindling tax base, those savings were huge.
“We needed safe water, and we needed it fast. We needed to replace the system, and PVC was a good choice for us,” said Burton’s mayor, Paula Zelenko. “I’ve got to get the best bang for the buck, because bucks are hard to come by these days.”