By Tom Precious, News Albany Bureau

Gov. George Pataki vetoed legislation, which had passed overwhelmingly in the Legislature, that would have banned the use of plastic plumbing pipes in commercial and larger residential construction. As a result, builders will be able to use the less expensive plastic in commercial buildings.

The governor, who three years ago approved the ban over the objections of construction, development and the plastics industries, recently knocked down the legislation that critics maintained adds sharply to the costs of new buildings.

Pushing for a continuation of the three-year-old ban was a statewide coalition of plumbers unions representing 30,000 workers, who builders say could lose some work because plastic is easier to work with than the currently mandated cast iron or copper.

"It's a sad day for workers and residents of this state. We are now at the mercy of corporate interests who will expose us to toxins," said Jimmy Hart, the statewide representative of the organization of plumbers unions.

The plumbers, some environmental groups and some firefighter organizations maintain that the plastic piping is dangerous when burned in building fires or in incinerators.

Business groups, as well as some other firefighter organizations, said the science is mixed on the matter, and that the state already permits plastic piping in new home construction.

The bill's critics said it also violated the goals of a statewide building code that is trying to fit into a national standard on such issues as piping materials.

"We are thrilled with the governor's recognition about how important this issue is to growth and development in this state," said Phil LaRocque of the New York State Builders Association, which joined upstate mayors, including Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello, and business groups in pressing for the veto.

While the two sides fought an intense campaign over claims and counter-claims about the safety of the plastic piping, Pataki's veto message was silent on any of the controversies. Pataki called the bill "well-intentioned," but said it had "serious technical defects that could hinder compliance and enforcement efforts." He said the bill also had several provisions that "could result in confusion among builders, architects and enforcement officials."

The state's ban on plastic piping was considered the nation's most strict; only California's code comes close when it comes to restricting plastic in commercial and larger residential buildings.

Among the biggest beneficiaries of the veto will be the plastics industry, which will now have a huge new market opened up. "For our industry, this means there is a recognition that plastic pipe is a material that is (cost) competitive, that is safe and can be used in commercial and residential settings. All we've been asking for is a level playing field," said Stephen Rosario, Northeast regional director of the American Plastics Council.

A developer in the Buffalo Niagara region hailed Pataki's action as a step toward strengthening the local economy by lowering the cost of building. Using plastic pipes could save up to $150,000 on a 255,000-square-foot building, said Laura Zaepfel, of Uniland Development Co.

Critics of the ban said the requirement to use only cast iron rather than plastic, for instance, adds 6% onto the overall cost of an apartment complex. Developers say it can drive up a project's labor costs for plumbing by 25%. Builders say cast iron can cost $4 a linear foot, compared to $1 for plastic.

Environmentalists, who have often backed Pataki on issues over the years, were harshly critical of the governor's action. "We feel this is a major setback to protect New Yorkers from toxic chemical exposure," said Mike Schade, Western New York coordinator of the Citizens' Environmental Coalition. "The governor had a golden opportunity to protect New Yorkers from exposure to PVC, the poison plastic. By caving in to special interests, the governor has failed in his obligation to ensure a safe and healthy environment for millions of workers, firefighters and residents across the state."