Plastics News: Plastics industry pushes for pipe choice laws in a number of states

Posted on May 9th, 2017 by plasticycle

Washington — The plastics industry is making a major lobbying push in state capitols to open more of the huge government infrastructure market to plastic pipe, arguing that legacy laws favor traditional materials like ductile iron and concrete.

Plastics industry lobbyists say it’s likely a years-long project, but they see a potentially significant payoff: The American Chemistry Council estimates that at least 50 percent of the pipe infrastructure market in storm water and drinking water is off limits to plastic because of regulations.

“What we’re trying to do here is increase the size of the opportunities in the market for plastic pipe and break down those barriers that have created virtual monopolies for other materials,” said Keith Christman, managing director of plastic markets for Washington-based ACC.

But the campaign is getting significant pushback, both in state capitols and Washington.

Opposition is coming not only from competitive materials, like ductile iron pipe makers, but also from material-neutral water utility organizations like the American Water Works Association.

AWWA said it is not taking sides in material choices but says the changes pushed by the plastics industry would hamstring decision making by local water utilities and “lead to a significant increase in bid protests and litigation.”

“We should not adopt a one-size-fits-all, top-down mandate from the state on unique decisions that are best handled by design professionals and local entities,” AWWA said in a policy statement. AWWA officials did not respond to requests for comment.

$1 trillion investment opportunity?

With the Trump administration and Congress in the early stages of a potential $1 trillion infrastructure spending plan, the topic will only get more attention.

A legislative analysis by Michigan, for example, said cities there will need to spend $13 billion over the next 20 years to update “badly outdated” drinking and ​ wastewater pipes.

So far, the plastics industry’s push has not become law in any state. It’s gone furthest in South Carolina, where it passed the state’s House in early March in a 55-47 vote.

ACC, with support from groups like the Plastics Pipe Institute and the Uni-Bell PVC Pipe Association, is targeting a half-dozen states this year: Arkansas, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina and South Carolina.

Specifically, ACC wants laws that say that if state funds are used in local projects, bidding must be open to any materials that meet specifications set by groups like ASTM International and AWWA.

ACC argues that open bidding can save taxpayers money by lowering the cost of new projects. The idea has support from groups like Americans for Tax Reform and the National Taxpayers Union.

“The reality is that communities across the country are paying way more money than they need to for this infrastructure replacement that needs to go on,” Christman said. “There are local restrictions in place that mandate only ductile iron pipe for drinking water, for example, or only concrete pipe for stormwater.”

ACC’s studies show that cities and counties can reduce the capital costs for new pipes if they open up their bidding process. That’s true whether or not they use plastic, ACC said.

In general, storm water or drinking water pipe costs average $300,000 to $500,000 per mile, but open bidding can reduce the cost by $100,000 to $200,000 per mile.

ACC says cities in the same state can see big differences: In North Carolina, for example, Raleigh’s “closed competition” results in pipe capital costs of nearly $305,000 per mile, while Charlotte’s “open competition” system means its pipe costs about $149,000 per mile, ACC said.

ACC said its legislation would not restrict engineering judgment by local water utilities, and would still allow them to consider local conditions.

But opponents are skeptical.

Skeptics seek proof

In South Carolina, State Rep. Russell Ott led opposition to ACC’s plan during the March 9 debate and noted intense lobbying on both sides.

He said he had not seen “tangible” examples where existing rules were causing a problem and said changes could complicate bidding and lead to lawsuits.

“It’s going to increase costs, it’s going to slow down projects that our constituents that we represent depend on to get done in a timely fashion so they can have drinking water delivered to them in their homes,” Ott said.

The nationwide push also is a red flag for Ott and some other legislators.

“What did raise a level of concern to me was to find out that this is not just South Carolina,” he said. “If we could point to something here in South Carolina and show, here is a problem that has occurred and this is what we’re trying to solve, I might not be here.

“But this is an industry push, it seems, not only here in South Carolina, but everywhere else, and that’s what gives me some pause,” he said.

Some legislators did speak in favor of the plastics industry’s open bidding push.

State Rep. Dwight Loftis, for example, said his local water utility supported the bill. He said newer materials may be less expensive or perform better, and compared it to the automobile industry, where car manufacturing is benefiting as new composite materials replace steel.

“What initiated [the legislation] appears to me, somebody already has their foot in the door and does not want the competition,” he said.

Ott noted that the legislation also passed the state House last year, but then stalled in the state Senate, and suggested that could happen again this year.

Beyond the behind-the-scenes lobbying in state capitols, there’s also a public relations battle.

For example, a former White House official for President George W. Bush, Darren Bearson, has published opinion columns in media outlets praising ductile iron pipe and criticizing plastic pipes, labeling them cheap, more prone to breaking and made from “potentially hazardous” materials.

On the other side, Bonner Cohen, a senior fellow at the conservative-leaning National Center for Public Policy Research, has written articles in water industry publications and Washington political media in favor of open bidding, noting that local governments have saved money with plastic pipe.

It’s clear that the fight will continue. The Ductile Iron Pipe Research Association portrays it as “PVC pipe preference” legislation and said the plastics industry was “failing” because it had yet to pass laws in any state, despite trying for several years.

But ACC’s Christman said that with a potential market of $6.5 billion to $10 billion, the plastics industry will keep pushing: “It’s going to be something we’re going to be working on for significant years.”

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