Both parties reject EPA fire hydrant guidance

The House voted Monday to override guidance from the Environmental Protection Agency that would require new fire hydrants to be lead-free by early next year.

Members passed the Community Fire Safety Act, H.R. 3588, in a unanimous 384-0 vote.

ADVERTISEMENT
The bill, from Reps. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) and Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), is a response to guidance issued by the EPA on Oct. 22. That guidance said the EPA would require fire hydrants to be covered by the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act, starting early next year, since fire hydrants are occasionally used for drinking water during emergency situations.

That means any new hydrant installed after Jan. 4, 2014, would have to have lead-free components. Johnson and Tonko say that guidance goes too far, and would put communities at risk due to a lack of commercially available fire hydrants that meet the new requirements.

"Water utilities have made it clear that they have two choices come Jan. 4: fail to comply with federal law, or leave gaps in critical fire hydrant service," Johnson said Monday evening. "No one should ever face that choice."

Johnson said the winter is an especially busy time for replacing hydrants, since they often break when roads freeze up and cars slide into them. He said the EPA rule would make it harder to replace these hydrants, and downplayed the EPA's assessment that hydrants with lead content pose a health risk to people.

"The risk to human health from lead in water is from long-term exposure," he said. "That's why there is no scientific data showing health effects from people drinking water from hydrants."

Bills aimed at gutting EPA rules are usually heavily partisan, but Tonko's co-sponsorship and the easy House vote show that the desire to override this particular guidance has broad bipartisan support.

"We need to remove lead from our drinking water, but we do not need to regulate fire hydrants to achieve this worthy and important goal," he said. "When Congress passed the amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act three years ago, I doubt anyone intended to have EPA regulate hydrants."

Tonko also agreed with Johnson that there are "real questions" about the availability of lead-free hydrants and said this legislative fix is needed in the meantime.

The legislation would change the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act by adding language that exempts fire hydrants from the law, just as shower valves are already exempted.

The EPA issued its guidance less than three months before the law is scheduled to take effect. On Oct. 22, the EPA said hydrants are sometimes used to deliver drinking water, and said as a result, "hydrants would not qualify for the exclusion for pipes, fittings and fixtures used exclusively for nonpotable services."

Also Monday, the House passed H.R. 3547, the Space Launch Liability Indemnification Extension Act, in a 376-5 vote.

This bill extends the current liability scheme for commercial space launch companies, which many see as a needed step to keep these companies competitive. Under current rules, companies buy insurance to cover up to $500 million of damages to third parties due to failed space launches.

The government pays anything above that amount up to $2.7 billion, a level that rises with inflation. After that, the company is on the hook for any damages over $2.7 billion.

— This story was updated Tuesday at 3:55 p.m. to clarify that the EPA bill is meant to override EPA guidance, not a formal EPA rule.