Philly plumbers union pipes up about skycraper's waterless urinals
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PHILADELPHIA -- This city's hoped-for bragging rights as home of America's tallest environmentally friendly building could go down the toilet.
In a city where organized labor is a force to be reckoned with, the plumbers union has been raising a stink about a developer's plans to install 116 waterless, no-flush urinals in what will be Philadelphia's biggest skyscraper.
Developer Liberty Property Trust says the urinals would save 1.6 million gallons of water a year at the 57-story Comcast Center, expected to open next year.
But the union put out the word it doesn't like the idea of waterless urinals -- fewer pipes mean less work.
The city's licensing department, whose approval is needed for waterless urinals, has not yet rendered a decision.
The mayor's office has stepped in to try to save the urinals, which use a cartridge at the base to trap odors and sediment as waste passes through.
It told the plumbers that the city's building boom will provide plenty of work for them and that even waterless urinal systems need some plumbing connections, said Stephanie Naidoff, city commerce director.
Philadelphia's unions have periodically put the city in a difficult spot.
For years, convention groups were canceling bookings at the Pennsylvania Convention Center because of difficulties working with six unions. New rules were established in 2003 to allow convention groups to deal instead with a middleman, a labor supplier. A few months later, the electricians union temporarily shut off power and picketed the center in a dispute with the supplier.
In 2004, the MTV reality show "The Real World" briefly pulled up stakes after union workers, in a dispute over hiring practices, picketed the house the cast was to live in. The show's producers and labor leaders eventually negotiated a deal to bring the show back.
Waterless urinals were introduced in the early 1990s. Thousands are in use around the country, including such places as the San Diego Zoo, Walt Disney World and the Rose Bowl.
Though no pipe carries water into the urinal, the amount of piping eliminated is very minimal, said Jill Kowalski, executive director of the Delaware Valley Green Building Council in Philadelphia.
The fight over the urinals gets even stranger given that the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, the city's transit agency, installed a dozen of these a few years ago at its headquarters. Spokesman Richard Maloney said the city approved their use and the urinals passed initial inspections. Two were later deemed as not conforming to city code and were converted to traditional urinals.
But it was only recently that the city licensing agency questioned the use of no-flush urinals, Mr. Maloney said, and threatened to take the transportation authority to court. Robert D. Solvibile Sr., Philadelphia's licensing chief, has said he is afraid they could create dangerous gases. ("I want to make sure they're safe," he told the Inquirer when the issue surfaced.)
The apparent about-face testifies to the unions' clout.
"They can turn up votes and they have loyalty," said Charles McCollester, a labor relations expert at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
First Published March 31, 2006 12:00 am