Editor’s Log: Under Siege

When considering the condition of America’s underground sewer and water infrastructure, there are several constants. For those in the know, the word ‘failing’ tops the list, closely followed by a perpetual dearth of funding.

The glimmer of hope over the past couple of decades has been the steady evolution of trenchless or substantially trenchless rehabilitation technologies that have proved safe, effective and increasingly cost effective. Leading the way has been the development of cured-in-place pipe (CIPP) technologies and pipebursting methods. For countless cities around the U.S. and indeed, the world, these rehab and replacement methods have proved life savers for municipalities continuously battling tight budgets, consent decrees, public health concerns, ruptured pipe emergencies and more.

But certain recent developments have made these technologies the subject of attacks without scientific justification. For pipebursting, it has become a question of trying to deflect blame. For CIPP, the principal resin used by industry is in danger of being labeled as ‘reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.’ Both technologies are either accused or facing an unnecessary and pointless panic attack upon the marketplace.

The devastating gas explosion last year in San Bruno, CA, first raised the specter of pipebursting as a possible cause of this particular gas pipe deterioration. But further investigation revealed that the pipebursting project had been installed properly and did not cause an adverse impact upon the gas pipe. Even the owning company’s inspectors had signed off on the project. The blame seemed to fall upon seam-welded pipe and failure by the owners to repair the known problem area in a timely fashion.

But as evidence of possible negligence began to mount, the owners recently reversed their position and suggested that pipebursting could still have been the cause. The National Transportation Safety Board’s preliminary reports, however, found no reason to implicate pipebursting as a cause contributing to the explosion.

The cured-in-place pipe industry has a different issue but no less threatening. Apparently, a single individual’s concern raised to the right government agency has led to a potential decree that the essential chemical used for resins, specifically styrene, could be designated as ‘reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen’ by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) – basically implying that styrene could be a cause of cancer in humans.

This sounds quite onerous to the average person. The problem is that without additional scientific studies and research, there is not enough evidence to make such a broad, declaratory statement. Quite the contrary is true. Europe and Canada all crossed the “styrene bridge” years ago by performing in-depth research and finding conclusively that styrene, in the quantities and methods used in CIPP, was in no way a health issue for humans.

On the world stage, the use of styrene is enormous. Even though CIPP is the world’s most widespread, proven rehab technology, it still comprises only about ½ of one percent of the global consumption of styrene.

There are certainly other methods that can be effective and economical for their specific niches, pipebursting being one. But on a widespread basis, it is rare to find effective alternatives at such economical construction cost rates.

Non-styrenated resins are available but largely unproven and much more expensive at this time. Financially-strapped cities are not able to keep up with infrastructure needs as is. If suddenly, a cost-effective and efficient pillar of any modern rehab program were to be removed from the marketplace, it would further exasperate an already-desperate infrastructure failure situation. Further, needlessly increasing costs to the sewer rehabilitation market in a broken economy means less work, fewer jobs and possibly putting the public health at risk due to leaking sewers.

Styrene has been used safely and effectively in thousands of products for decades. We use such products often many times each day without even realizing it. Styrene even occurs naturally in the environment. Without proper research, the potential impact upon America would be devastating. Europe and Canada have already proven, with comprehensive scientific research, that styrene is innocuous in the manner in which it is by the CIPP industry. The HSS should immediately initiate a further scientifically sound research project resolve any issues or concerns. That’s all that NASSCO and the styrene industry are asking. Just do the additional science before issuing such a potentially devastating characterization of styrene.

While the procedure used to bring us to this point has been legal, it is also wholly inadequate and morally questionable. We can only hope that the HHS shelves such an ill-advised, poorly conceived and onerous regulation to await the findings of additional solid science.

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