Plastic pipes used underground to carry water from mains to curbside water meters have proved so fragile that Harford County has gone to court to recover repair costs that eventually could exceed $25 million, attorneys for the county said.
The lawsuit, which was filed last week in Harford Circuit Court, is the first of its kind in Maryland and one of only a handful to address the public works side of a national concern involving polybutylene, a plastic resin produced by Shell Oil and Shell Chemical companies. The resin is used to manufacture the plastic pipe, commonly called PB pipe.
Harford contends that more than 1,000 of nearly 20,000 water service installations from 1984 to 1993 have sprung leaks, cracked or broke, damaging the water system, roads and sidewalks.
"The cost to fix each failure depends on many factors, but a fair estimate for the average repair cost is $1,300 to $1,700," said Ernest A. Crofoot, Harford's county attorney.
Before 1982, Harford County construction codes permitted only copper pipe.
David L. Ylitalo, a Texas lawyer who won an out-of-court settlement in 1986 on behalf of the city of San Antonio, has been invited to be co-counsel in the Harford litigation.
Mr. Ylitalo said PB pipe can be identified by its bluish tint and has lettering on it that reads "PB."
The best way for homeowners to tell if they have potential problems is to check if the pipe connected to their water meter is blue or has "PB'" block letters stamped near the connection, JTC Mr. Ylitalo said. Such service is known as "outside" or "yard" service, to differentiate it from "inside" or "home" service.
A gray-tinted version with "PB" block letters typically has been used inside homes and businesses for water lines, and it has spawned a number of class-action lawsuits -- none in Maryland -- in several states, he said.
Thirteen other defendants named in the Harford lawsuit manufacture PB pipe, are wholesale distributors, or supply fittings used to connect it to mains and meters.
Pipe made from polybutylene resin came into use about 1978 and, at about 15 cents a linear foot, quickly became a popular cost-saving alternative to copper pipe that sold for $1 a linear foot, said Bud Adams, owner of Belair Road Supply in Rosedale, one of the defendants grouped in the lawsuit as "wholesaling defendants."
Between 1982 and 1984, Harford began to allow PB pipe to be used by developers. By mid-1993, in the wake of the growing concern about the number of repairs done at county expense, the use of PB pipe was discontinued.
DeeDee Taylor, a spokeswoman for Shell Oil in Houston, said Shell's attorneys had not received a copy of the Harford lawsuit and therefore had no comment.
Representatives of two manufacturers of PB pipe said Shell has stopped producing polybutylene resin. When asked if that was the case, Ms. Taylor said, "Shell stands behind its resins and its products."
Similar, but unrelated to the Harford lawsuit, are several class-action homeowners' suits in Houston, Alabama, Tennessee and Delaware. They seek to recover past and future costs to repair waterlines between curbside meters and individual residences or businesses.
Ms. Taylor said company officials were optimistic that the homeowners' litigation in Tennessee would be resolved soon.
Besides the Shell companies and Belair Road Supply, the lawsuit also names as "manufacturing defendants": Vanguard Plastics Inc. of McPherson, Kan., and Orangeburg Industries Inc. of Asheville, N.C.
The "wholesaling defendants" include: A-1 Pipe Inc. of White Marsh; A. C. Pipe Inc. of Primos, Pa.; Waterpro Supplies Corp., formerly known as A & P Water and Sewer Supplies Inc. of Weston, Mass.; Flow Industries Inc. of Randallstown; James P. Lazzati Co. of Boring; M & C Sales Inc. of Finksburg; and Universal Water Works Supply Co. Inc. of Landenberg, Pa.
Additionally, it names as "fittings defendants": Ford Meter Box Co. Inc. of Wabash, Ind.; A. Y. McDonald Manufacturing Co. of Dubuque, Iowa; and Mueller Holding Corp. of Decatur, Ill.