California State Pipe Trades Council
"As California's consumer watchdog, we applaud the California State Pipe Trades Council for its record of pro-consumer advocacy." - Richard Holober, Executive Director, Consumer Federation of Cailfornia

Polybutylene Plastic Pipe: Demand for Pre-Approval Review Spares California Homeowners from Costly, Catastrophic Failures

Polybutylene (PB) pipe was another plastic pipe product touted as safe and effective by its manufacturer, the Shell Chemical Company. PB drinking water pipe was first proposed for inclusion in the California Plumbing Code in 1982.

Concerned that the safety and effectiveness of this material had not been adequately studied, the California State Pipe Trades Council, among others, demanded that California review the health and safety of this product prior to its approval. Presented with evidence of potential risks associated with PB, the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) agreed that environmental review of PB pipe was necessary and withdrew its proposed approval of this product to allow further study.

During HCD’s environmental review of PB, expert testimony showed that PB pipe contained antioxidants, which were designed to prevent degradation of the plastic caused by oxidants. The evidence submitted in the environmental review process raised questions about the ability of these antioxidants to protect the PB pipe and indicated that the pipe could be degraded by chlorine and oxygen, causing loss of strength, brittleness, and ultimately, premature mechanical failure. Studies were also conducted showing that PB may leach toxic chemicals into drinking water.

Shell vehemently disputed this evidence and claimed in written submittals to HCD that PB had a performance life of fifty years. Shell attacked members of the public (including the California State Pipe Trades Council and its then attorney, Raymond Leonardini) for suggesting that PB could leach toxic chemicals into drinking water. Shell went so far as to sue Leonardini for trade libel, based on these criticisms of PB.

Although HCD persisted in requiring environmental review of PB before authorizing its use statewide, the City of San Diego, unfortunately, took local action to approve PB for use in that city. While the state’s environmental review was proceeding, PB began to degrade and to fail spectacularly all across the United States, drenching homes with water, including homes in San Diego, and causing enormous damage.

Because of the dramatic and extensive problems with PB, California never approved it for use statewide. Shell was sued across the nation, as well as in San Diego, where class-action lawsuits were filed on behalf of 60,000 homeowners with failing PB pipe. Shell withdrew the product from the marketplace and stopped all manufacture of the pipe. It is estimated that more than one million American homes may eventually suffer problems with PB failures.

Shell ultimately agreed to a one billion dollar settlement of the claims. Furthermore, Leonardini won a five million dollar judgment against Shell for malicious prosecution of the trade libel claim. According to the Court of Appeal decision, “Shell's policy was that if the state did not discover any health problems with the system on its own and did not specifically ask for that information, Shell would not volunteer it.” (Leonardini v. Shell Oil Co. (1989) 216 Cal.App.3d 547.)

Because of the California State Pipe Trades Council’s demand for pre-approval review of PB and refusal to back down from the bullying tactics of Shell, Californian homeowners were saved from millions of dollars in potential damages from unsuitable plastic water lines.