New EPA standard for fire hydrants could cost water districts thousands

12/13/2013 10:00 AM |
CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | Newly-purchased fire hydrants may have to be sold for scrap if new federal regulations aren't changed or put on delay.

CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | Newly purchased fire hydrants may have to be sold for scrap if new federal regulations aren’t changed or delayed.

Stockpiles of fire hydrants previously purchased by local water districts could soon be useless following new federal standards for lead used in infrastructure that provides drinking water.

Effective Jan. 4., the maximum amount of lead allowed for use in pipes distributing drinking water will change from 8 percent to .25 percent — a new standard enacted by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The new standard is a result of the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act passed in January 2011, aimed at reducing the amount of lead in drinking water pipes and other plumbing fixtures to protect public health.

Although the act was passed nearly three years ago, the EPA only recently indicated fire hydrants would have to meet the new standard – because they can be used to provide drinking water in emergency situations – according to a release from Sen. Charles Schumer’s office.

Any hydrant installed on or after Jan. 4 would need to meet the new EPA standard, according to the guidelines.

“As soon as [the law] was passed we changed our policy to immediately order fittings that didn’t contain lead so three years from then we’d be ready – nobody had any idea they were going to include fire hydrants,” said Suffolk County Water Authority commissioner James Gaughran. “Fire hydrants are used for fire safety purposes.”

He said had the agency known three years ago, it would have prepared to comply. They agency was notified Oct. 22, when a summary of the law’s guidelines was released by the EPA, he said.

The SCWA services about 1.2 million people annually through more than 37,000 hydrants, and services most of Southold Town.

The agency’s existing stock of hydrants yet to be used numbers about 400 — valued at about $1,000 apiece — that, combined with associated fittings, totals about $450,000 of what could be unusable equipment, Mr. Gaughran said. If no exemptions are made, or delay is granted by the EPA, the existing stockpile would be sold at scrap value, he said.

“We’re certainly concerned about lead contamination getting to the drinking water, but it takes a long time,” Mr. Gaughran said. “Give the industry time to develop and manufacture the new hydrants, so that there is competition – so we don’t get rate shocked,” he said. “Who knows, they could double or triple in price.”

Riverhead Town Water District Superintendent Gary Pendzick said he only keeps about a dozen new hydrants in stock, each valued at about $1,500.

“For us it’s not that much of a consequence,” Mr. Pendzick said, adding that he hopes to be able to order equipment to retrofit the hydrants he currently has in stock.

Problem is, the supply industry hasn’t had the time to manufacture parts that meet the new EPA standard, he said.

“We called to get pricing and our supplies said they are not making retrofit kits yet,” Mr. Pendzick said.
They are not even making the hydrants yet.

At a press conference Monday, Mr. Schumer called on the EPA to exempt existing stocks of fire hydrants purchased before it released the guidelines in October, which he says will save water districts thousands of dollars.

On Dec. 2, the House of Representatives unanimously passed legislation that would add fire hydrants to the list of devices exempt from the new lead standards – which includes toilets and shower parts. Action from the Senate and presidential approval would still be needed to fix the problem for local water districts.

Mr. Gaughran, who called the problem “just another example of government bureaucracy out of control,” said the agency replaces about 200 of its roughly 3,700 hydrants each year – many of which become damaged in winter storms and car accidents, he said.

The Riverhead Water District replaces about a dozen of its 2,000 hydrants each year, Mr. Pendzick said.

While lead is rarely found in source water, it can enter tap water through the corrosion of plumbing materials, according to the EPA.

Exposure to lead can affect nearly every system in the body, and exposure above levels of 15 parts per billion can cause  delays in physical and mental development in babies and children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

cmiller@timesreview.com