Call it the politics of plumbing: New York state officials, encouraged by labor unions, have started enforcing a ban on plastic pipe in new construction.
It's the latest round in several years of political fighting between unions that say they have safety concerns with PVC pipe and some building and plastics industry officials who want to loosen the restrictions on plastic pipe use in the state. New York's Legislature in 2001 passed a three-year ban on widespread use of plastic pipe, including PVC.
But since then, some local governments have kept granting approval for plastic, arguing that state law is in conflict and that other parts of New York's legal code give them that authority.
That's what set up this latest round. The issue has surfaced in Onondaga County, which includes Syracuse, where the State Labor Department has notified more than 30 businesses that they face misdemeanor charges for using PVC pipe.
One, the Boys and Girls Club of Syracuse, used PVC pipe in a $1.6 million expansion it recently completed.
Mark Sheehan, director of operations for the club, said club officials received all the required approvals they thought they needed from the county and state agencies. But in January, several months after the new wing was complete, Labor Department inspectors showed up and told them they couldn't use PVC and had to replace it with metal.
Sheehan said the experience is typical of bureaucracy in New York state, and said the club does not plan to go to the expense of removing the PVC: ``Are they going to close down a Boys and Girls Club? Our mission is to work with kids in disadvantaged neighborhoods.''
Other businesses cited by state inspectors include a local mall renovation, a McDonald's and several retail businesses, from TJ Maxx to Price Chopper, according to local TV news reports.
Onondaga County officials maintain they don't prefer any one material over another, and county spokesman Marty Farrell said the local health department does not have a problem with PVC pipe. Existing building codes in the state allow PVC, Farrell said.
Before the Legislature enacted its ban, state building code officials had been moving ahead with plans to adopt a more plastics-friendly International Plumbing Code in the state. State building officials had rejected union arguments that PVC was unsafe.
Union officials say they have concerns about what happens with PVC pipe in fires and potential health effects from working with PVC and its solvents.
``Our fear is that the chemicals in the PVC pipe and the chemicals in the solvents used are going to, in the future, rear their ugly heads and could prove to be as serious a situation as asbestos has become,'' said Paul Fingland, representative of Local 267 of the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters Union in Syracuse.
Some industry officials have suggested that the union move is more about protecting jobs, because copper and cast-iron pipes are much more expensive to install. But Fingland disputes that.
Fingland said he noticed last year that PVC was still being used in new construction in Onondaga, and began writing letters to local officials asking them to enforce the law. Eventually, the state Labor Department began citing businesses, since the ban on plastic was made part of the labor code, not the building code.
Fingland said most of the complaints have been in the Syracuse area, but he said plumbers are starting to raise the issue around the state.
Onondaga County Attorney Anthony Rivizzigno said the county considers PVC OK because the IPC allows it, but he said that at some point a judge probably will have to decide which part of state law takes precedence: the building code or the labor law.
A spokesman for the state's Fire Prevention and Building Code Council, which had favored allowing more plastic pipe, said the labor law takes precedence until the ban expires at the end of 2004. But Rivizzigno said Onondaga is considering asking a judge to decide.