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Alleged Pinhole Leaks in Copper Pipes May Be Caused By Corrosive Water

Shapell Homes filed a $5 million lawsuit against Moulton Niguel Water District because it believes the water supplied by the district is overly corrosive, says attorney.

(Editor's Note: This guest editorial was submitted by Andrew D. Turner, Special Counsel, Shapell Homes, Inc.)

Recently, Shapell Homes filed a $5 million lawsuit against Moulton Niguel Water District because we believe the water supplied by the district is overly corrosive and/or aggressive. Litigation was not our first choice, however, after more than a year trying to reach agreement with MNWD we were unable to convince the district to join with Shapell to investigate the potential for corrosivity and investigate solutions, including possibly just changing their water treatment process. 

Since 2001, Shapell has built approximately 950 homes in the San Joaquin Hills and Hillcrest Estates developments in Laguna Niguel. In recent years, we noticed an alarming rate of repairs required due to pinhole leaks in copper pipes. Shapell’s customer service division has made repairs to approximately 200 homes in these communities, due to pinhole leaks developing in the copper pipes. Although these pinhole leaks occurred after Shapell’s contractual warranty had expired, as part of its repairs Shapell has replaced homeowners’ copper pipes with cross linked polyethylene (PEX) pipes.

Shapell has been building quality homes in Southern California since 1955, and has never experienced this number of pinhole leaks in copper piping.  After extensive evaluation by independent experts of our materials, subcontractors and installation procedures, as well as a thorough water analysis, we concluded that the problem is not caused by the pipes or installation but by the corrosive properties of the water.

Shapell tried to work with MNWD to solve the problem of corrosive water short of litigation.  As part of that effort, we requested a tolling agreement, which would allow time for the parties to meet and share information in an effort to determine whether a solution could be reached, and which would not result in Shapell losing certain legal rights.  Unfortunately, MNWD would not agree to work with us.  It appears that MNWD staff, rather than the Board of Directors, made the decision not to enter into a tolling agreement because a review of the minutes of the Board meetings reflect that the Board was never provided the opportunity by the staff to make a decision one way or the other on Shapell’s request for a tolling agreement.  Our preference continues to be to reach an agreement with the district for supplying non-corrosive water.  We reluctantly filed suit to encourage the district to reevaluate the water chemistry to eliminate or to lower the corrosivity level in MNWD's water as MNWD is the only party that can make that change.

According to our lawsuit, the concentration of leaks is due to the treatment of the water supplied to the homes in Laguna Niguel by MNWD.  The Federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) Lead and Copper Rule, for example, requires that drinking water shall be “generally non-corrosive”.  Our lawsuit alleges that MNWD’s treatment of the water results in water that is in fact corrosive, and as such violates MNWD’s standard of care.  One potential cause is in the use of chloramine, a disinfectant used to treat drinking water. 

This issue is not limited to the Shapell homes in Laguna Niguel.  Lennar has also filed suit on the same issue against the Metropolitan Water District and Santa Margarita Water District.  In those matters, the water districts have responded that if the problem was in the water, pipes would be leaking everywhere.  Shapell contends that a cursory review of the number of building permits issued for water pipe replacement in similarly-sized communities in Orange County show a disproportionately high number of permits issued in Laguna Niguel as compared to that of other cities with water suppliers other than MNWD.

We continue to leave the door open to negotiations with MNWD as we still believe this is the best alternative to resolving this issue, especially for the ratepayers of the Moulton Niguel Water District.

Shirley November 15, 2012 at 08:24 PM
I hope this attorney is good enought to porve the case. These pin hole leaks are not new and some have had slab leaks. MNWD always manages to get off scott free, no matter how srong the case is against them. They have saused many to do very expensive repairs or expensive measures to prevent the leaks. I'll be waiting to hear the results of this. Oh by the way, does this not go to court until the year 2020?
Barton Mac Leod November 15, 2012 at 09:30 PM
Many of the homes built in 1992 including mine on my street El Peppino/Rancho Niguel Road in Laguna Niguel had the same problem of copper pin hole leaks.
Valerie Burchfield Rhodes November 16, 2012 at 12:34 AM
I read a similar story in the OC Register a few months ago and the article asked people who had experienced slab leaks due to pinhole leaks to call South Coast Water District with their stories. I put calls into both SCWD and Moulton Water but no one was interested in hearing from me about the many problems people in my community have had with this issue. It is unclear to me how much is due to corrosive water issues and how much is due to poor copper quality and inferior construction, but it is an enormous problem and remedies are long overdue.
Heather Kartzinel November 16, 2012 at 03:19 PM
I had this happen to me twice. My house (Laguna Niguel) was built in 1971 and I had several thousand dollars in damage (including mold) from pinhole leaks. One of the pipes was only 8 years old while the other was original. I might have a photo, but the pipes were sent off for analysis. The insurance company told me to get a water softening system after the second incident or else I would be dropped. Since then I have had no further trouble.
Jennifer November 16, 2012 at 06:19 PM
Our home was built in 1971 and has had multiple pinhole leaks in the water main from the meter to our home. As I type this comment, my front yard is torn up from the replacement of pipe from the latest leak. Since we moved into this house in 2001, we have had 6 water main leaks in the front yard. Once or twice per year there will be a leak in the streets surrounding our community. Most of our neighbors have experienced this same problem, although ours seems to be the worst and most frequent. We have always been told by MNWD that it was due to "hot soil", but after reading this story I am beginning to think otherwise. It would be interesting to see how many other Laguna Niguel communities experience the same problem.
Ed November 16, 2012 at 07:32 PM
I had pinhole leak last year. Plumbers charged me $800 and told me the poor quality of the copper (he even pointed out the specification markings on the copper pipe) was the problem. Either way, I'm interested to see how this plays out. I'm in Rancho Niguel and house was built in 1990.
CW November 17, 2012 at 06:20 PM
I'm in the Expressions Condos in Laguna Niguel. The number of leaks and severe damage throughout this complex (including my unit) is staggering. There's not a day that goes by here without seeing a group of plumbing and restoration trucks.
Sean January 26, 2013 at 05:56 PM
Our Townhome built during 2001 Aliso Viejo, Camden Park a community of 197 homes has had an alarming number of pinhole leaks throughout the complex. My unit has experienced 7 plumbing events since our purchase during 2008, with the last 3 events being pinhole leaks. Each time the plumber comes out he is working on 2 or 3 other homes in our complex. For a home built 12 years ago this doesn't seem right. The HOA has been paying tens of thousands of dollars for every unit and it is very inconvenient. I hope they win this case.
mikelomonaco March 30, 2013 at 09:05 AM
Water supply is important matter because it is a essential part of our life so we should careful about it. And your website is very helpful for water supply. click here - <a href="http://www.lomonacocoast.com">laguna beach plumber</a>
Aaron Rankin Wagstaff September 29, 2013 at 06:52 AM
Can the lawyers prove be on a reasonable doubt that the water is corrosive.........if they are having problems doing so.....i can....:)
brandon September 30, 2013 at 06:49 PM
How can you prove the water is corrosive?

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