COLUMBUS, Ohio – ” Philadelphia has 119 fire hydrants that cost about $2,000 each waiting in a warehouse to be installed, yet they sit high and dry because federal regulators say their fittings might taint drinking water with lead.
The City of Brotherly Love and communities across the country face the specter of hundreds of millions of dollars in useless hydrants after a surprise ruling last month by the Environmental Protection Agency that requires fireplugs put in after Jan. 4 meet stricter standards for lead content, said Tom Curtis of the American Water Works Association in Denver. That means cities must scrap or retrofit inventory or buy hydrants and parts that some vendors aren't even making yet.
Manufacturers and Curtis's group, which represents utilities that serve about 80 percent of Americans, are urging the agency to reconsider or at least allow more time to comply. American Cast Iron Pipe Co., one of the largest hydrant makers, is seeing some customers delay or cancel orders.
“This delivers a huge cost and probably no health protection,” said Curtis, the water group's deputy executive director. “It needs to be rethought.”
Hydrants pose little, if any, risk of long-term lead exposure because they are used to supply drinking water only on occasions such as a festival or when a main breaks, Curtis said by telephone from Washington.
Philadelphia is identifying hydrant parts that contact the water supply and is having new components made, said Joanne Dahme, a department spokeswoman. She said the cost isn't clear.
“We don't think it makes sense,” Dahme said by email. “The rule is not practical.”
The EPA said in a statement it is “meeting with stakeholders to listen to concerns and collect more information.”
The rule resulted from a law enacted in January 2011, the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act. The measure changed the amount of the metal allowed in plumbing components that contact water supplies from 8 percent to a weighted average of 0.25 percent, according to the EPA.
There is no safe level of ingested lead, especially for children, whose bodies absorb more of the metal than adults and can suffer learning disabilities and other effects, said Jerome Paulson, a pediatrician who teaches at George Washington University in the District of Columbia.
“You want to get lead exposure as low as you humanly can,” Paulson said.
Still, cities and manufacturers don't see hydrants posing a health risk, Curtis said. They also believed they were exempt from the EPA rule until the agency's Water Office on Oct. 22 issued a 14-page unsigned response to questions about the 2011 law and whether it applies to fireplugs.
The 55-word ruling, contained in the fifth item of the response, said for the first time that hydrants are included because they “can be, and are, used in emergency situations to provide drinking water.”
There are eight principal U.S. hydrant makers, according to the Manufacturers Standardization Society of the Valve and Fittings Industry in Vienna, Va. The plugs are typically made from cast iron with the cap visible above ground attached by a pipe to the underground water main. Components inside regulate flow, and brass parts and nozzle where a hose attaches can contain lead.
At American Cast Iron Pipe in Birmingham, Ala., the cap and components are brought to plants to be assembled, moving 15 to 20 at a time on a 40-foot conveyor line, said John Hagelskamp, sales manager for its American Flow Control unit.
The closely held company has been making hydrants for more than a century, he said, and the EPA's ruling already is affecting production.
Hagelskamp estimated that hydrants valued at hundreds of millions of dollars are in storage at water utilities and tens of millions are held by distributors.
“It's a firefighting device, not a drinking water device,” Hagelskamp said. “There's an urgency for EPA to do something.”
Mueller Water Products Inc., an Atlanta-based company that says it is the largest U.S. hydrant maker, supports efforts to have fireplugs excluded from the EPA rule. It cited “no discernible health risk,” in a statement.
Columbus, Ohio, has started monitoring its $120,000 inventory of hydrants, and plans to avoid purchasing banned fireplugs, said Water Administrator Richard Westerfield.
The city, with about 25,000 hydrants, plans to continue using its stock under the assumption the odds are low that they will ever provide drinking water, Westerfield said by telephone.
“We can't let them go not repaired, and we can't discontinue installation of new hydrants,” he said.
It can take a crew of three as long as six hours to replace a hydrant, which can weigh as much as 400 pounds (180 kilograms), according to the city's water department.
New York, the most-populous U.S. metropolis, has 110,000 hydrants and replaces about 450 each year, said Chris Gilbride, a spokesman for the city's Environmental Protection Department. Officials are assessing the EPA ruling's effects and back the water-works group's position, Gilbride said by telephone.
While hydrants have been in use for centuries to battle blazes, they also provide relief for youngsters during hot weather — or for dogs out on daily walks — and are part of the American psyche, said Thomas Ingalsbe, a cofounder of the website FireHydrant.org, which helps collectors and those seeking technical information. He said he has 900 fireplugs, including one from San Francisco in the 1830s.
“It's just kind of part of the American way,” Ingalsbe, 43, of Anniston, Ala., said by telephone. “They're always with us, even though we don't really acknowledge them.”