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Abatement Industry Fights EPA Over Lead Disposal

ASSOCIATED PRESS

It’s called the Alliance for Safe and Responsible Lead Abatement. Its target audience is Americans concerned about the environment. And its stated goal is to protect drinking water from being poisoned by lead paint removed from older homes and apartment buildings.

But behind the alliance’s efforts is a $50-million-a-year industry whose specialized service would be jeopardized by an Environmental Protection Agency proposal.

The EPA wants to drop federal rules requiring that certain steps be taken to contain building debris contaminated with lead paint. Instead, the agency would let contractors dump the material in landfills. The lead-abatement industry says that could result in drinking water contaminated with lead, which is especially harmful to children.

To challenge the EPA proposal, the industry is following a time-tested lobbying tactic that has proliferated in the 1990s: An interest group forms a coalition with a memorable name, hires a Washington lobbyist and uses grass-roots appeals to attract support from a public often unaware of the monetary interests behind the campaign.

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The alliance is spending $40,000 for a hydrologist’s study to rebut EPA’s conclusion that looser regulations won’t harm drinking water. It is getting its message to the public through newspaper opinion page columns and news stories.

It also has recruited environmental organizations to the cause, sending them a letter warning of the threat to ground water: “While this regulation may speed up the removal of lead-based paint from older buildings, it simultaneously will move the lead closer to our water supply.”

The letter doesn’t mention that the group is supported by an industry with a financial interest in defeating the rules.

Industry officials say their main motive is to protect the public from a harmful government action.

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“Lead in drinking water is such a much greater potential concern in the future after we take this short-term solution and remove all this lead and put it somewhere where it is still unsafe,” said alliance executive director Jim Wachtel. His company, NexTec, makes products used in lead paint removal.

One environmental organization, the Maryland-based Anacostia Watershed Society, has joined the fight.

“Any kind of a national regulation that would endanger ground water is of serious concern,” said Jim Connolly, the group’s executive director.

Under current federal rules, specially trained workers in protective clothing are called to a site where lead-painted fixtures are to be removed. They seal the room they’re working in and either use chemicals to treat the debris at the site or transfer the materials to sealed containers to be treated at landfills or incinerated.

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The government’s proposed rules would let contractors simply remove and dump lead-painted debris with other construction materials in landfills, reducing the need for lead-abatement specialists.

EPA officials say the changes will reduce the cost by up to 90%--with no harm to the environment. The hope is that by reducing the cost, more homeowners and landlords will replace window frames, doors and other materials containing lead-based paint and keep them away from children.

Lead has been banned from paint since 1978. But children in older buildings are still at risk of learning disabilities and behavioral problems if they eat the paint as it flakes off doorjambs and windowsills.


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