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EPA targets fire hydrants with drinking water law

Rochester, N.Y. -- A new federal law to protect drinking water from lead pipe fittings also targets fire hydrants. It means the Rochester and Monroe County will have to replace or retrofit hundreds of brand-new hydrants already paid for by taxpayers.

"It makes no sense to include hydrants in drinking water standards," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

13WHAM News is taking a closer look into the cost for taxpayers.

The new hydrants cost $1,200 dollars each. Taxpayers in the City of Rochester and Monroe County have paid a combined $400,000 for the replacement hydrants currently in storage.

Each year 5,200 hydrants in Rochester and Monroe County must be replaced. The lead in water law renders the brand-new units in storage useless because lead is used in some of the fittings. 

"Half-a-million dollars wasted for an absurd rule that should never have been applied to hydrants in the first place," said Schumer.

On the hottest days of the summer, fire hydrants are opened in some city neighborhoods for children to play in. A handful of times per year, the hydrants also provide drinking water to homes on a given street for a week or two while water mains are being repaired.

"That only happens in a half-dozen cases a year," said Paul Holahan, environmental director for the City of Rochester. "It might make sense in those cases to make sure those hydrants are lead free."

Beyond the issue of wasted tax dollars, there is a greater concern over public safety. The EPA released guidelines for the law in October. The new standards take effect Jan. 4, 2014.

Even if the water authority could afford to replace or retrofit the supply of new hydrants, no one is sure where the parts would come from. Hydrant manufacturers haven't had time to change up the production to meet the January deadline.

"I don't think they could produce enough hydrants to meet the demand that is going to be there for re-supply," said Bill Carpenter, director of the Monroe County Water Authority.

Without a supply pipeline, the water authority will be unable replace hydrants as they break down.

"Fire doubles in size every 17 seconds," said Rochester Fire Chief Sal Mitrano. "So if I have to wait another minute-and-a-half to get to another hydrant down the street, it creates a problem."

"If a fire hydrant is needed and this is the only one available, we're going to have to put it in," said Carpenter. "Public safety is much more important than this law."

Schumer is calling on the EPA to immediately waive the standard for hydrants, then to change the interpretation of the law to exempt them altogether. If the agency does not comply, he said he will introduce a new law to make these changes.

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Washington Times