Earlier this month, California’s investor-owned water companies (IOWCs) joined other public and private water utilities, water industry national organizations and associations nationwide in responding quickly and correcting a perceived misinterpretation of the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act (Act) by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). With a compliance deadline of January 4, 2014, the nation’s water purveyor community, including the California Water Association and its member companies, were successful in persuading national policymakers in the U.S. Senate to immediately pass the Community Fire Safety Act of 2013 (H.R. 3588), a bipartisan bill that was unanimously approved by the House on December 5.

The Act, which was enacted to reduce the amount of lead in pipes and plumbing fixtures that regularly deliver water for human consumption, was being interpreted by EPA, for the first time ever, to stipulate that “fire hydrants be subject to, and not otherwise exempt from, the lead-free requirements of the Act.” Along with those in support of H.R. 3588, California water companies contended that the EPA’s interpretation of the Act “overlooked the fact that the health concerns associated with lead are a matter of long-term exposure.” They also asserted that “because hydrants typically only serve as emergency water sources for a matter of hours or days, applying the new lead standards would represent a massive investment of community time and resources for little, if any, discernible public health benefit.”

According to San Jose Water Company Director of Government Relations John Tang, “California’s IOWCs remain committed to protecting public health and maintaining a safe water supply; however, we don’t believe this is what Congress intended, particularly because the federal law is modeled after the bellwether state laws for California and Vermont that were drafted and interpreted to exclude fire hydrants.”

In their message to congressional leaders, the associations explained that hydrants supplying a neighborhood or apartment building have flow rates that keep water from sitting idle inside the hydrants for very long. Lead concentrates in water when the water is stationary inside a fixture.

H.R. 3588 provides an important clarification to P.L. 111-380, which became law in 2011 as the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act. And, although there are more than 12 million fire hydrants in the U.S., without the enactment of H.R. 3588, hydrants could be taken out of service when they need maintenance or replacement rendering an insufficient stock of available, compliant hydrants.

Without the passage of H.R. 3588, fire hydrants would not have been exempted from the Act, and existing inventories across the country would have become obsolete if not installed before January 4. The EPA’s new interpretation would have allowed only two months for manufacturers, distributors and public and private utilities to use or lose their hydrant inventories, resulting in cities, towns and counties having to leave broken or inoperable hydrants out of service until new compliant hydrants can be purchased and installed. This could have created significant public safety risks, while burdening communities with an unbudgeted cost of approximately $2,000 to replace each non-compliant hydrant.

H.R. 3588 addresses this issue by adding fire hydrants to the list of devices, such as toilets, bidets and shower valves, that are exempt from the new lead content standards, and ensures that replacement and maintenance of fire hydrants can continue after January 4. California Water Association members were pleased to learn that their efforts with the U.S. Senate did not go unheeded. On December 17, the Senate adopted H.R. 3588 by unanimous consent. President Obama signed the bill into law on December 23, 2013.

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