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Battle Against Lead: Trump Administration Bill Has Maine Property Owners Worried

Patty Wight
Maine Public
Bettyann Sheats stands in one of her apartment buildings in Lewiston, in front of a staircase that's tested positive for lead.

Property owners and health advocates in Lewiston and Auburn are concerned about a bill before the U.S. Senate that they say could weaken regulations around lead poisoning.

And the say that, if approved, it could also shift the bulk of the burden of cleaning up lead paint to states, and put children at greater risk for poisoning. 

Bettyann Sheats knows all too well about the problem of lead paint in Maine's old housing stock.  The Democratic state legislator owns two apartment buildings in Lewiston that were built around the turn of the century - well before federal regulations banned lead paint in the late 70s. 

Sheats opens the door of one unit that leads to an old winding staircase.

"I can show you where I have a problem right now - this is the one thing that hasn't been taken care of yet, a beautiful old staircase," she says. "Apparently, the first time they tested, there was no lead.  But over the years as it's worn, there may be some exposure in the wood.  And they don't know why."

Sheats got a grant a few years ago to do lead abatement in her apartment buildings. Areas with exposed lead paint were either removed or encapsulated with a new coat of paint.  

Despite those efforts, one of her tenant's children tested positive for lead poisoning last year.  Though it's unclear whether the apartment was the source of the exposure, Sheats discovered nicks on the walls that exposed old paint. 

When she tried to hire someone to clean it up, she found contractors trained in lead remediation were few and far between. "Because the funding stream for grants has been sporadic, there's not a lot of contractors who want to take the time and expense of doing the training and getting the licensing and insurance that they need."

Out of a list of eight potential contractors, Sheats says only three were willing to do the work and it was a two month wait for the job to be complete. Sheats worries that if Congress approves something called the Regulatory Accountability Act, it will roll back federal standards - and funding - for lead abatement, making it even harder to clean up contaminated housing.  

That's something that Kevin Leonard of Community Concepts says Maine can't afford. "We're probably looking to four- to five-hundred units right now that are posted and have to have lead abatement done by somebody."

Leonard is the manager of the lead paint hazard control program at Community Concepts, which works on lead abatement across southern Maine. "And we don't have nearly enough money statewide to cover these abatements.  So there's going to be a housing problem here very soon."

That's because once a lead problem is discovered in a rental unit, tenants can't live in it until it's cleaned up.  According to the Maine Center for Disease Control, lead can permanently affect a child's growth and development.  Within the past year, the state has tightened its standard for the acceptable threshold of lead exposure for kids and allocated $1 million toward inspection and abatement efforts.  

Sophie Halpin of the Maine Conservation Alliance says if the Regulatory Accountability Act passes, it could stunt the state's momentum. "It is going to make important regulations that protect public health and safety much harder to pass."

The bill is part of a regulatory reform effort promised under President Trump.  It would slow down the ability of federal agencies to adopt new rules by adding new requirements to the process. Halpin says updated regulations serve as important guidance for states. 

"So a lot of these local groups are using these federal regulations as a starting point for their work and seeing, what's the minimum we need to do to protect Maine people?" Halpin says. "So without those regulations, it would be much more of a shot in the dark."

But supporters of the Regulatory Accountability Act disagree.  Maine 2nd District Rep. Bruce Poliquin joined his Republican colleagues in the House, who all voted in support of the bill.  His spokesman Brendan Conley says Poliquin doesn't think the bill would impact state lead rules, and says the congressman has supported, and will continue to support, funding for lead remediation. 

The bill now awaits consideration in the U.S. Senate.