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EPA ruling may drain cities' utilities

| Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013, 10:09 p.m.

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.

Communities across the country might have hundreds of millions of dollars in useless hydrants as a result of a surprise ruling last month by the Environmental Protection Agency. The ruling requires that fireplugs put in after Jan. 4 meet stricter standards for lead content, said Tom Curtis of the American Water Works Association in Denver.

As a result, cities must scrap or retrofit inventory or buy hydrants and parts that some vendors haven't even begun making.

Manufacturers and Curtis' 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, has 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.

Philadelphia is identifying hydrant parts that have contact with 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 wrote 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.

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