R.I. Orders Paint Makers to Pay $2.4 Billion to Clean Up Lead

September 17, 2007

Three former makers of lead paint that lost a landmark Rhode Island lawsuit, including Cleveland-based Sherwin-Williams Co., would have to pay an estimated $2.4 billion to clean up hundreds of thousands of homes contaminated with lead under a state proposal released Friday.

The cleanup plan provides the most detailed roadmap to date for the mammoth undertaking of ridding Rhode Island homes of lead paint contamination. It would involve 10,000 workers and is projected to take four years. The state filed the plan in Superior Court on Friday, said Mike Healey, a spokesman for Attorney General Patrick Lynch.

The plan is subject to approval by a court, which could order less sweeping measures. The companies, Sherwin-Williams Co., NL Industries, Inc. and Millennium Holdings, also are appealing the February 2006 jury verdict.

“It’s a big number by any stretch of the imagination,” said Jack McConnell, a lawyer for the state. “But it’s also a big problem that’s gone on for a long time that requires a permanent solution.”

Scott Smith, a lawyer for Millennium Holdings, called the plan a “boondoggle,” saying it was unworkable, too expensive and likely to disrupt people’s lives.

“We think the state’s proposed plan is, in a word, ridiculous,” he said.

The proposal estimates it will cost an average of $11,250 to clean a home, although a report issued this year said it could cost as much as $18,500. It covers the roughly 240,000 homes in Rhode Island believed to contain lead paint, as well as thousands of additional seasonal homes, elementary schools and child care centers.

Rhode Island’s lawsuit claimed the industry created a public nuisance, with tens of thousands of children being poisoned by lead since the early 1990s. It was the first state to sue, and its victory last year was the first time anyone had successfully sued former lead paint manufacturers. Several municipalities and families also have sued the industry, but none so far have been successful.

The companies argue that property owners and landlords should be responsible for cleaning up lead paint in their homes and say the state has overstated the extent of the problem.

Superior Court Judge Michael Silverstein has said he believes the companies do not have a good chance of getting the verdict overturned, and asked the state to come up with a plan for how the companies would clean up the problem.

Silverstein asked the three companies to respond to the proposal by Nov. 15, Smith said.

McConnell, the lawyer for the state, said he hoped the cleanup would begin next year.

Lead paint was banned in the United States for use in homes in 1978, but most homes in Rhode Island were built before then and still contain the toxic substance. Exposure to lead is particularly dangerous for young children, who can develop a reduced IQ, behavioral disorders, stomach problems or brain damage if they breathe in lead dust or eat lead paint chips.

The proposal excludes buildings constructed after 1980, as well as prisons, dormitories, nursing homes and other places where young children are unlikely to live.

The 127-page proposal says homes built before 1980 would have to be carefully inspected, with tests measuring lead paint levels on walls, floors and ceilings, as well as in dust on window sills and in the soil outside. Doors, windows and cabinets that are coated in lead paint would be removed and replaced. Walls, ceilings, floors and other surfaces that contain lead paint could be enclosed by other materials.

The report does not recommend lead paint be completely removed from homes and buildings — an even more costly undertaking that the plan says would be impractical.

Some of the work would force families to leave their homes temporarily, and the plan also calls for the companies to fund stipends for alternate housing.

Under the proposal, the work would focus first on homes where lead-poisoned children live and other properties in six of the state’s poorest cities, including Providence and Pawtucket, that are deemed high-risk. Buildings with lower lead paint concentrations, or those with no history of poisoning, would be a lower priority.

Bonnie Campbell, a spokeswoman for the companies, said that aspect of the plan rewards landlords who fail to maintain their properties. She termed the plan disruptive.

“The state is calling for forced inspections and lead paint abatement of all homes built before 1980 no matter how well-kept a home is, and even if that home has no lead hazards or small children residing there,” she said.


Associated Press writer Michelle R. Smith contributed to this report.

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