Knoxville News Sentinel: Editorial: Delaying rule during rebuilding is reasonable

Posted on May 28, 2010

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander managed to tack an amendment onto the Supplemental Appropriations bill this week that would delay new lead paint abatement rules so Tennesseans can repair flood-damaged homes.

The amendment, co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, would allow contractors to be considered in compliance with the new rule as long as they enroll in training classes by Sept. 30.

The rule went into effect on Earth Day, April 22, which was 10 days before 13.5 inches of rain fell over one weekend in Middle Tennessee, triggering floods across the region.

As it stands, contractors and their employees who aren't certified could face fines up to $37,500 a day for disturbing lead paint during their work on houses, schools and child care facilities built before 1978.

The new rule establishes work rules, bans some practices, and requires more detailed record-keeping and inspections. Work that disturbs less than six square feet is exempt.

Alexander's office says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has only three trainers assigned to Tennessee to teach the classes and that fewer than 3,000 contractors have been certified statewide.

With Nashville sustaining roughly $2 billion in flood damage, the need for skilled workers is acute.

Alexander wrote a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson asking her to delay enforcement of the rule, reinstate a homeowner opt-out provision for those with no young children or pregnant women staying there, and increase training capacity.

He hedged his bets by seeking to codify his request to Jackson before she could respond.

On the floor of the Senate on Wednesday, Alexander said, "Having a good rule is one thing; having a thorough implementation period is another; but to do it in the middle of a flood which is the largest natural disaster since President Barack Obama took office is tone-deaf to reality."

The lead-based paint rule is a smart regulation.

Lead was commonly used in paint prior to 1978. Lead paint can chip and peel, creating hazardous conditions for children and pregnant women.

High levels of lead in the body can lead to brain damage and learning problems in children, and reproductive problems and nerve disorders in adults. It's important that contractors and their employees handle lead paint properly.

Many homes in Metro Nashville/Davidson County and the 44 other Tennessee counties declared disaster areas are uninhabitable until repairs are completed, however, and the delay only gives contractors time to gain certification. It does not exempt them from the rule.

Allowing contractors who haven't been certified in lead paint abatement to work on older uninhabited houses during an emergency makes sense. Fining them for plying their trades during the recovery from a disaster doesn't.

The bill, which contains additional funds for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the replenishment of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's depleted accounts, will pass. The Alexander-Collins amendment needs to be part of it.