Capitol Alert

Paint companies and lawmakers battle over who pays lead cleanup bill

Six Assembly Democrats introduced a package of bills Thursday, March 22, 2018, to hold paint companies liable for lead paint in homes.
Six Assembly Democrats introduced a package of bills Thursday, March 22, 2018, to hold paint companies liable for lead paint in homes. Baltimore Sun/TNS

Major paint companies are looking to voters to absolve them of a likely nine-figure environmental cleanup bill they face in California, but a group of state lawmakers has a plan to make them pay.

Six Assembly Democrats unveiled bills Thursday that would, in various ways, make it easier for homeowners to sue companies that used to sell lead paint.

A proposed November ballot initiative backed by former makers of lead paint seeks to reverse court rulings in California that declared lead paint a public nuisance and ordered paint companies to pay for removal of lead paint from older homes. The initiative asks voters to instead approve a $2 billion bond to fund cleanup efforts.

Lawmakers see it as a cynical effort to avoid a court judgment.

"The toxic paint companies have lied for decades, and they are lying again to escape liability for poisoning generations of Californians," Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, said. "This package of bills ensures the paint companies are held accountable."

Along with Chiu, the six bills were introduced by Assembly members Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, Wendy Carrillo, D-Los Angeles, Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, Monique Limón, D-Goleta, and Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley.

The package includes a bill by Stone that would allow the state to contract with counties to certify more lead paint inspectors. Quirk's bill, which would take effect only if the ballot initiative passes, would enact a fee on paint manufacturers for paint sold in California.

The fees would create a fund for residents to use when cleaning up lead paint in contaminated homes.

"The pervasiveness of lead paint in low-income communities of color reveals a disturbing practice where these companies continually put profits above public health and safety," Carrillo said during a news conference announcing the bills.

Ten California cities and counties sued five companies in 2000 for creating a public nuisance by promoting and selling lead paint when the dangers of lead exposure were well known. A Santa Clara County judge ordered three of the companies - Sherwin-Williams, ConAgra Grocery Products and NL Industries - in 2013 to spend $1.15 billion to remove lead in hundreds of thousands of homes built before 1980.

In November 2017, a state appeals court upheld the finding that lead paint is a public nuisance. It reduced the companies' liability, however, by holding them responsible for homes built before 1951 instead of 1980. The court is still determining how much money this new ruling will cost paint companies.

The California Supreme Court declined a request last month by the paint companies to take up the matter.

Cue the ballot initiative.

Dubbed The Healthy Homes and Schools Act, the initiative would declare that lead-based paint "on or in private or public residential properties ... is not a public nuisance." It negates the state appeals court ruling by applying the initiative to any lawsuit appealed on, or filed after Nov. 1, 2017.

The $2 billion bond would remove "mold, asbestos, radon, water, pests ... and lead" from homes, apartments, schools and senior housing facilities.

With interest, it would cost taxpayers $3.9 billion to pay off the bond over 35 years, according to a state estimate.

The three paint companies have donated $2 million each to the initiative campaign, which is also supported by business and manufacturing organizations.

The initiative's stated purpose is to help California's housing crisis by repairing properties and increasing the supply of safe and affordable homes.

Kendall Klingler, a spokesperson for the initiative effort, said the latest court decision requires millions of homeowners in homes built after 1951 to clean up lead paint with no financial help.

While acknowledging that paint companies could be forced to pay for lead removal in some cases, Klingler said the legislative proposals do not solve the "complex issue" and were backed by trial lawyers who profit off of the court ruling.

"None of these bills do anything to help homeowners in any of this," Klingler said. "The homeowners are still the ones on the hook."

Klingler said state programs, such as the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, already remove lead paint through fees on gas and lead paint manufacturers.

Children's rights, social justice and environmental advocates who support the new package of bills see the initiative differently.

"The fact that these corporate behemoths are now trying to escape responsibility for their poisoning of babies shows they haven't changed and adds a new layer of dishonor to their disgrace," Ed Howard, senior counsel for the Children's Advocacy Institute, said in the news release.

Organizers of the initiative have until July 25 to collect 365,880 signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot.

Klingler said the signature gathering effort is "on track."