State, Paint Makers At Odds Over R.I. Lead Cleanup

April 18, 2007

The state of Rhode Island has recommended that a public health expert assist a judge who is preparing to order a massive cleanup of homes contaminated by lead paint, while three manufacturers who lost a landmark lawsuit last year said the process should not begin until Rhode Island’s top court decides on their appeal.

Superior Court Judge Michael Silverstein had asked the state and the companies to suggest an expert, or special master, who could help him evaluate a plan for cleaning homes contaminated by toxic lead paint — a process that’s been estimated to cost several billion dollars.

The state recommended David E. Jacobs, a former official at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, saying he had overseen the cleanup of thousands of housing units in the country and consulted New York City on dealing with lead paint contamination.

“I hope that my experience can prove useful to the citizens of Rhode Island in helping to prevent childhood lead poisoning from lead paint,” Jacobs said Monday afternoon.

A jury last year found three former lead paint manufacturers — Sherwin-Williams Co., NL Industries, Inc., and Millennium Holdings LLC — liable for creating a public nuisance. The companies are appealing the verdict to the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

The defendants urged Silverstein to delay the selection of a special master until the Supreme Court rules on their appeal, saying there were serious legal questions that need to be reviewed before a costly and time-consuming cleanup could begin.

In the event the judge rejects their request, the companies recommended a panel of experts drawn from areas of expertise — public health, environmental regulation; law and economics — that could serve as special masters.

“At a minimum, the path towards a remedy in this case is unclear, and the planning process is a job too large for one person,” the companies wrote in court papers filed Monday.

The decision on whom to select rests ultimately with the judge, who has said he wants someone of national stature to do the job.

The state is responsible for submitting a proposal for how the companies should be forced to deal with the lead paint problem. Lawyers for the state say roughly 250,000 older homes in Rhode Island contain lead paint.

The special master would then consult with the judge and consider questions such as the cost of the abatement plan, whether additional property inspections are necessary and whether any aspects of the proposal would be impractical for the companies to carry out.

At HUD, Jacobs oversaw all lead-paint related activities, including grants, research and public education, the state said. He was also principal author of a 2000 report called, “Eliminating Childhood Lead Poisoning: A Federal Strategy.”

He also consulted with New York City to develop a lead paint abatement plan in the 1980s and has trained thousands of public housing authorities on inspecting and cleaning properties.

Jacobs is currently research director at the National Center for Healthy Housing, a Maryland-based nonprofit organization.

Jack McConnell, a lawyer representing the state, said he thought Jacobs’ credentials were in line with what Silverstein was looking for.

“In many ways, his qualifications almost seem to have been written by the court,” McConnell said.

In court papers filed earlier in the case, the state estimated that cleaning lead paint from roughly 250,000 homes could cost between $1.37 billion and $3.74 billion.

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

Ohio earlier this month became the only other state to sue former lead paint and pigment manufacturers.

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