Senators like House idea of stopping EPA's fire hydrant guidance

A bipartisan group of four senators wants to follow the House's lead by overriding guidance from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that would require fire hydrants to meet a new lead-free standard.

Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) have introduced language to do just that, a week after the House passed its own legislation to gut the EPA decision.

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On Oct. 22, the EPA issued guidance that said fire hydrants would be covered by the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act, which mandates the use of lead-free pipes to transmit drinking water. That decision was based on a finding that fire hydrants are sometimes used to deliver drinking water.

In the House, the EPA's decision went over like a lead balloon. Members argued last week that the guidance would mean new hydrants would have to fit the standard, but that there are not enough lead-free hydrants available to meet demand.

That problem, they said, could pose possible fire risks to communities around the country that might have to violate the law in order to install available hydrants. The House easily passed legislation, 384-0, to exempt fire hydrants from coverage under the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act.

The Senate bill would make the same exemption, and Toomey said it's needed to avoid pushing an expensive federal mandate onto the states.

"It is absurd that the EPA has handed down this costly mandate, which will fall directly on the backs of local governments," Toomey said. "The implementation of this EPA rule will force local governments to leave malfunctioning fire hydrants idle until adequate funds and products are available — which poses an undeniable threat to public safety."

Casey agreed and said the bill would allow local governments around the country to continue to use existing hydrants to replace those in need of replacement. "The regulation issued by EPA will prove too costly and too burdensome for Pennsylvania's fire departments and could threaten public safety," he said.

Without congressional action, the EPA guidance will take effect early next year. Senate leaders have not said whether they would take up the bill, but the Senate is in session this week and next, and could consider it then.