R.I. Court Seeks Health Expert Advice on Lead Paint Cleanup

April 17, 2007

Lawyers for the state of Rhode Island and former lead paint manufacturers were expected this week to recommend experts to assist a judge as he directs the companies to carry out what could be a hugely expensive cleanup of homes contaminated with lead paint.

Superior Court Judge Michael Silverstein is turning to a public health expert, or special master, to advise him on how three companies found liable last year for creating a public nuisance must now deal with problems caused by the toxic paint.

“It is clear that it is time for the attorneys to step aside and let the public health community show us the way,” said Jack McConnell, a lawyer representing the state.

The scope of the cleanup, estimated to cost billions of dollars, could be unprecedented since no other state has won a jury verdict against former lead paint manufacturers. Rhode Island had been the only state to sue the industry until earlier this month, when Ohio filed its own case.

A Rhode Island jury in February 2006 ruled against three companies — Sherwin-Williams Co., NL Industries, Inc., and Millennium Holdings LLC — in a public nuisance lawsuit brought by the state. They have appealed to the state Supreme Court and declined to comment through a spokesman Friday.

Though each side gets to recommend an expert, the decision on whom to select ultimately rests with the judge, who has said he wants someone of national stature to do the job.

Silverstein directed the state to submit a plan for dealing with lead paint contamination and wants the special master to evaluate the proposal, saying he lacks the public health expertise to do it on his own.

The person would consider questions such as the cost of implementing the plan, whether any of its elements duplicate programs already provided by the state and whether the companies face practical restrictions that would prevent them from carrying out certain parts of the proposal, according to a written decision in February that upheld the jury verdict.

The state has not yet submitted a cleanup plan for the special master to review. In court papers filed earlier in the case, it estimated that cleaning lead paint from roughly 250,000 contaminated, older homes in Rhode Island could cost between $1.37 billion and $3.74 billion.

But the cost of cleaning a contaminated home has dramatically increased since then due to the rising cost of labor and materials, state lead paint experts said in a January report.

McConnell said the cleanup in the state will probably be a monumental undertaking.

“If we render harmless the nuisance in Rhode Island, that will be an unprecedented health action,” he said. “No doubt about it.”

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