Local Professionals Should Make Decisions About Water Infrastructure
By Matt Moore
South Carolina legislators certainly have their work cut out for them this session. So far, much of the focus has been on finding a solution to the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station debacle and ethics reform. What hasn’t received as much attention, but is critically important to our state, is fixing our aging infrastructure.
Roads, bridges, dams, levees, ports and inland waterways are among our most visible infrastructure needs, but underneath the surface lurks another critical, but often overlooked piece of infrastructure. The pipes that carry our drinking water are aging, and require attention to ensure that as they are replaced it is done in a way that helps protect the health and safety of our communities.
Last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) highlighted a number of severe deficits in South Carolina’s infrastructure. In its annual infrastructure report card, ASCE noted that we need to invest about $1.8 billion over the next 20 years in just our drinking water infrastructure. That’s a lot of money at any time but in a period of shrinking budgets and growing demands, lawmakers have to be very careful about where they allocate tax dollars.
That’s why a bit of legislative trickery from the some in the plastic pipe industry and their allies is so concerning. The New York Times last year reported that the American Chemistry Council – a “deep-pocketed trade association that lobbies for the plastics industry” – has been pushing legislation in a number of states under the auspices of opening up municipal bidding to competition. But as every municipal leader and project engineer knows, bids are already competitive so long as contractors and materials meet certain requirements.
The problem for companies that sell plastic pipes is that often, their products don’t meet those specifications, which is why the plastics lobby and Chemistry Council are trying to force municipalities to give preference to pipe materials that may cost less up front, instead of considering the long-term costs for this infrastructure upgrade. Because plastic is cheaper than other pipe materials like ductile or cast iron, it will have fewer costs up front. But as the saying goes, you get what you pay for. In fact, pipes that are made from ductile iron have been proven to have a longer service life than those made from plastic, making those iron pipes a better investment over the long term.
What water utility professionals know about plastic PVC pipes is that they degrade when exposed to ultraviolet light, become brittle when temperatures drop and have chemicals called plasticizers injected into them for flexibility. Brittle, degraded pipes that can leech chemicals into ground soil are not a good investment.
The plastic pipe industry claims that municipal bidding processes are closed and rigged against them. The fact is, project engineers and other professionals put a lot of work into drawing up the requirements for each project. They know that the initial cost of installation may not be the only factor that should be considered.
Testifying before a Michigan state house committee last year, Stephen Pangori of the American Council of Engineering Companies said, “It’s simply catering to an industry that is trying to use legislation to gain market share.”
There are a lot of worthwhile legislative efforts that industries and companies will ask lawmakers to support. Forcing engineers to accept project bids that use subpar materials not only jeopardizes our communities’ health and well-being, it also undermines their professional judgment. Our lawmakers should reject these efforts and make sure that our local communities, project engineers and water utility professionals are the ones making the decisions about what kinds of pipes are best. Trying to upend these local decisions via a state mandate ignores the facts on the ground and could lead to cities in our state ultimately paying more over the long term to ensure this piece of critical infrastructure is upgraded for the needs of the 21st century.
Matt Moore is the former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. He holds a degree in industrial engineering from Georgia Tech.