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EPA May Give the Brushoff to Oil-Base Paints

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Oil-base enamel paint containing a high level of solvents may be outlawed by an upcoming decision of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Oil-base enamels are widely used where a tough, glossy surface is desired, such as interior and exterior wood trim, kitchens and bathrooms.

The EPA and the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which regulates stationary pollution sources in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and parts of San Bernardino counties, agree that solvents in oil-base enamels are significant contributors to smog.

According to SCAQMD figures in 1983, oil-base paint was responsible for about 4% to 6% of solvent emissions.

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Acceptable Alternatives

A ban on the high levels of solvents in oil-based paints originally was proposed by state and local environmental agencies in 1977, but the paint industry has repeatedly received extensions.

This fall, the EPA’s branch in San Francisco is expected to conclude that oil-base paints aren’t necessary and that water-base paints, which contain lower amounts of solvents, are acceptable alternatives.

The ban will not be total, since oil-base paints will be available in quart sizes for smaller do-it-yourself projects.

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The EPA’s decision will be based on the results of an eight-month survey, which has included talks with state and local environmental agencies, paint manufacturers and painting contractors.

Manufacturers continuing to make the higher-solvent enamels would be subject to thousands of dollars a day in fines once the EPA publishes its intent of disallowance in the Federal Register. The paint industry can challenge that ruling during a 45-to-90-day period, and a public hearing may be granted. After that, the federal agency will render its final decision.

‘Unwarranted Relaxation’

The EPA says its proposed action has been spurred by the failure of state and local agencies to enforce their original, lower-solvent ruling.

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“We are reacting to what appears to be an unwarranted relaxation of a rule,” explains EPA section chief Jim Breitlow. “We couldn’t see the rationale for that. We would like to see the rule address specific situations for which solvent-borne paints are necessary, if any, instead of a complete rollback of the rule,” he says.

The expectation is that these coatings will be banned because solvents in oil-base paint contribute to the formation of ozone, the major component of photochemical smog. As the paint dries, the solvents--petroleum products--are released into the environment.

Southland paint manufacturers and retailers readily admit that with oil-base paints representing less than 10% of the enamel market, the loss would not be economically catastrophic.

Criticized Survey

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However, they are vigorously contesting the proposed EPA move on the grounds that it would not bring about the expected drop in emissions.

Paint manufacturers have criticized the EPA’s survey for not soliciting the opinions of industry leaders with years of background in paint technology.

The industry also argues that there are certain conditions when water-base paints are unacceptable substitutes, such as high humidity, extremes in temperature or poor surface preparation.

Industry sources say that the reputations of painting contractors will be hurt if they don’t have access to oil-base paint, which they maintain produces a better-looking effect and is much more durable than water-base paint.

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Contractors’ Concern

“Suppose you hire a contractor to put a water-base enamel on a door jamb and that paint pulls off six months later,” says Donald Curl, legislative chairman of the Southern California Paint and Coatings Assn. (SCPCA), which represents the industry in largest volume and dollar sales. “Aren’t you going to ask that contractor, ‘What did you do? Thin the paint down, or buy the cheapest paint you could find?’ ”

From the EPA’s point of view, that kind of comment would be expected while paint users get adjusted to the loss of oil-base paints. But EPA officials point out that 72% of glossy enamels on the market are already water-base, so clearly the consumer prefers water-base paint, they say.

Paint industry spokesmen say that it is not only contractors who will miss oil-base paint, but do-it-yourselfers as well, although a breakdown on oil-base paint use by professional and non-professionals was not available.

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“The homeowner is not going to get the paint he wants. He’ll be painting much more frequently,” maintains Arnold Hoffman, vice president of Standard Brands Co.'s manufacturing division.

‘Technology Pretty Good’

“The impact will be on people who want a better finish, those who are more demanding in how a job looks,” says Don Gonzalez, southern regional manager for Ameritone Paint Corp. “If we’re talking exteriors, the do-it-yourselfer may not be repainting that much more often, because the technology for water-base paints is pretty good.”

Until the mid-1960s, when latex enamels were introduced, all paints were oil-base, with a solvent level of 400 to 500 grams per liter (gpl). In 1977, the California Air Resources Board and the SCAQMD voted to reduce the amount of solvents in oil-base paint to 250 gpl.

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“We had nothing but problems with the (lower-solvent oil-base paints),” recalls Gerry West, vice president of City of Industry-based Decatrend Paints, a paint manufacturer primarily serving painting contractors. “The products were really bad, but we had no choice.”

The industry convinced the SCAQMD to allow 380 gpl of solvents in oil-base paint. Industry watchers contend that some contractors still thin down their oil-base enamels (illegally) with solvents to improve the paint’s performance, thus defeating the purpose of the compromise.

Viable Alternatives

Sabrina Schiller, the SCAQMD board of directors’ most outspoken advocate of stricter air control standards, says the paint industry is stonewalling and that water-base enamels have improved considerably in the last decade, making them viable alternative to oil-base enamels.

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The industry maintains that because of the higher frequency of repainting that may result from water-base paints, the total solvent emissions release may increase, not decrease. Paint chemists say this is because water-base enamels contain as much as 250 gpl of solvents.

Industry leaders also say the EPA doesn’t understand the conditions under which contractors work: changing climate, tight scheduling and managing large crews. Waiting until conditions are perfect for water, as do-it-yourselfers can, won’t work for contractors, they claim.


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