Legislature kills contractor training, certification bill designed to reduce lead poisoning

By Dave Sherwood, staff reporter, Pine Tree Watch | May 11, 2017
Photo by: Naomi Schalit

A Maine bill reinforcing federal requirements for training and certification to do renovation work on buildings containing lead is dead, leaving unresolved questions about the safety of renovating homes in Maine that contain lead paint or plumbing.

The Maine House and Senate failed to come to agreement on the measure, with the Democrat-led House voting in favor of the bill in late April but the majority-Republican Senate voting against it.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Nathan Libby, a Democrat from Lewiston — which has the most severe lead paint problem in the state — called the partisan result “depressing” and said Maine still has much work to do reducing the risks of lead contamination.

“We’re a real outlier in the country and we need to be a lot more aggressive,” Libby said. “I don’t see us moving in the right direction.”

Libby’s bill would have required Maine contractors to comply with a federal law mandating special safety training and certification for renovations that disturb lead paint in homes, child care facilities and schools built before 1978.

That federal requirement, known as the Renovation, Repair and Painting Rule or “RRP Rule,” has rarely been enforced in New England. Only three enforcement actions of the EPA law had been mounted in Maine between 2010 and August 2015, although the agency stepped up enforcement in the Lewiston-Auburn area in mid-2016 after an investigation by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting revealed the agency’s lax administration of the law.

The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news service founded in 2009, recently rebranded as Pine Tree Watch.

Fewer than 15 percent of Maine’s 4,700 construction firms are certified to perform lead-safe work, according to EPA and U.S. Census data.

At a public hearing in March, Libby’s bill drew opposition from industry groups, including the Maine Association of Realtors, as well as the state Department of Environmental Protection, who said the measure unnecessarily broadened the scope of the federal legislation.

An amended version filed after the hearing scaled the bill back, requiring only that contractors comply with already existing federal law.

Sharon Hayes, the regional EPA staff member in Boston who is in charge of enforcing the law, admitted in 2015 to the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting that her agency was unable to comprehensively enforce the federal law at current budget and staffing levels.

Libby’s amended bill would also have allocated $100,000 annually to the Department of Environmental Protection to offset the costs of lead-safe training and certification for up to 250 Maine contractors each year, a provision that drew criticism from Republican lawmakers.

Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, co-sponsored the bill, but said she was concerned about the state footing the bill for enforcement of federal laws at a time when budgets are tight. Volk joined her Republican colleagues in voting against the measure on April 27.

“If we were to adopt that legislation, we would be taking over a program that the federal government really should be responsible for enforcing. I agree they’re not doing a very good job. But when you do that, you assume all responsibility, including cost,” Volk said.

Dave Sherwood is a staff reporter for Pine Tree Watch, a nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news service focused on Maine state government and institutions. Email: dave@pinetreewatch.org. Web: pinetreewatch.org.

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