Flawed Law Still Benefits Society

In April 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency put into effect new lead paint containment regulations. These new rules, known as RRP (repair, renovate and paint) have changed the industry in significant ways.

The regulation requires woodwork and architectural elements being demolished or removed from existing structures to be collected, bagged and contained. This is then put in a Dumpster and hauled to a landfill. The obvious benefit of this process is there will be much less lead introduced into the environment.

The downside for contractors and homeowners is the increased costs. Proper adherence to these regulations is being placed squarely on remodeling/renovation contractors, who then must pass those costs along to the homeowner. The paint companies seem to have skated away from any responsibility despite the fact it was well known by the late 1800s lead caused serious developmental problems in children. Britain banned lead paint in 1913, but the U.S. did not ban lead paint until 1978, mainly because the paint companies fought hard to prevent a lead paint ban.

The costs and inconveniences we are experiencing now pale in comparison to the tragedy of thousands of families whose children have been lead poisoned throughout the past 150 years, not to mention the untold costs to society and our health care system. The paint companies in business back then are still in business now. But, Congress and the EPA have chosen to put the costs of the cleanup on contractors and homeowners.

OK, enough outrage. What am I going to do? What does this mean in practical terms? To give you an idea of the costs involved, every contractor subcontractor involved in renovation work are now required to become “certified renovators.” The certification process starts with each individual taking an eight-hour training class in proper RRP procedures. S+H Construction trained 45 employees last year at the VFW hall in Cambridge, Mass. The first part of the training was very unsettling, as the instructor proceeded to inform us that every time we came home from a day of demolition and carpentry in an older home and hugged our kids, we had probably poisoned them. As the day wore on the requirements of the new law piled up in our heads. My partner and I actually started thinking about an exit strategy, because it all seemed too onerous. By the next day, we had backed off from the precipice, remembering that dealing with challenges is what we do, and we will make it work, somehow.

Because we had such a large group getting certified, we received a discount, but the cost was still around $60 per person. Between the course fee, wages for the day and other miscellaneous expenses associated with the training, the training cost us roughly $13,000 to $14,000.

In addition to the training, there are a number of procedural changes that must be done in order to comply with the new rules. Detailed paperwork must be filled out every day, by every job supervisor and project manager. We now employ someone in the office just to maintain the paperwork. We also have someone to stock and maintain a supply room with RRP-related items. We must have negative air machines on the job site (we have purchased three at about $1,000 each), and the pricey filters need to be changed regularly. Additionally, HEPA vacuums must be used during the “hot” phase of the job (we have six or seven at about $600 each, plus filters). On the jobsite, when demolition work is done, plastic sheeting must be rolled out on the floor, up the walls and taped. The work environment must be separated from other areas by plastic walls (we do this anyway). The negative air machine has to be in operation. Then everything to be removed has to be dropped onto the plastic and rolled up. It also can be put into heavy-duty contractor trash bags, goose necked and duct taped in a particular manner.

Clearly there are good reasons for these laws. Lead should not be allowed into the environment. Kids should not get poisoned. These laws were written by good people with very good intentions. And, as a responsible company, there is no question we will put these regulations into practice and spend what we must to ensure our customers and employees are safe. That has always been our number one priority.

But unfortunately, the requirements came into effect right in the middle of the recession, when people can least afford the extra cost. The reality is only a fraction of the licensed contractors and subcontractors have been trained. The EPA has turned enforcement of the rules in Massachusetts over to the state, because Massachusetts’ requirements are even more rigorous than the federal mandates. There are not nearly enough inspectors to enforce the laws, so it is done mainly through snitching. Fines start at $37,500, per incident.

We’ve determined that RRP can add from 2 to 5 percent to the cost of a job, or more, depending on what is involved. With everyone cutting their markups and margins because of the economy, contractors who are complying with the law feel they are putting themselves further behind the eight ball in terms of being competitive. But they, like us, are doing the right thing.

If you believe, as S+H does, that the law, with all its flaws, is good overall for society, then please hire and support the contractors that play by the rules and are RRP certified. The next time you see someone grinding or pressure washing a house that is older than 1978 without precautions, or you see someone tossing uncontained debris out of a window into a Dumpster, that person is breaking the law and possibly endangering children’s health. And, if you think that the paint companies should contribute something, anything, to offset these costs, please call your senator.

For more information, contact S+H Construction at (617) 876-8286 or email at mail@shconstruction.com.