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Builders: New lead rule will be costly

MANATEE — Local contractors say a controversial new federal safety rule will increase home-remodeling costs in Manatee County but by how much is a matter of debate.

Beginning Oct. 1, contractors will be required to take additional precautions when renovating structures where children could be exposed to lead dust from old paint. The new “lead-safe” practices apply to work on homes, day-care centers and schools built before 1978, when lead paint was banned for residential use because of health risks.

Contractors say they will comply with the new regulations but will pass the cost of compliance onto customers.

“Any government regulation such as this inevitably costs the customer or end user more money,” said John Kiernan, owner of Kiernan Remodeling & Design Inc. in Bradenton. “If you’re a pre-’78, you’re going to pay more.”

But how much is unknown and hotly debated.

Kiernan estimated $500 to $2,000 per job, depending on the size and scope. The National Association of Home Builders said its members’ estimates average about $2,400, including an extra $60 to $170 for a window replacement.

But the Environmental Protection Agency counters that it might be as low as $8 to $167 because some required equipment can be used in multiple jobs.

The agency issued the rules in 2008 because more than 1 million American children a year are at risk of being poisoned by lead-based paint. Exposure can lead to learning disorders, behavioral and reproductive problems and, in extreme cases, brain damage or death. The government estimates 38 million U.S. homes built before 1978 contain some lead-based paint.

Under the rules, contractors and their employees must take an eight-hour training course and become EPA-certified as lead-safe. In buildings with lead paint, workers will have to wear special outfits with air filters, goggles and hoods, protect work sites with heavy plastic, clean work areas thoroughly with special vacuums and post warning signs.

Violations carry potential fines of up to $37,500 a day, EPA said. The requirements don’t apply to homeowners doing their own renovation work.

The new requirements took effect April 22 of this year. But the agency since has twice postponed enforcement of them after contractors complained that the government had not provided enough trainers to help them meet the April deadline.

The EPA and health advocates questioned that, noting that 160,000 people had been trained by that date.

“I think it’s a change, and whenever you have a big change like this you are going to have pushback from the industry,” said Rebecca Morley, executive director of the nonprofit National Center for Healthy Housing.

Two years was enough time for contractors to prepare, EPA spokesman Dale Kemery said.

While getting a delay, the industry is fighting another aspect of the new rules in court.

Four groups — the homebuilders association, the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, the National Lumber & Building Material Dealers Association and the Window and Door Manufacturers Association — have sued the EPA over its closing of an ‘opt-out’ provision from the tougher rules.

Homeowners previously could choose to not have their contractors follow lead-safe work practices, but the EPA closed that exemption July 6. The industry groups say that was a last-minute change done without supporting scientific data.

While the rules have yet to be enforced, it’s already cost local contractors.

The training course costs $300 and the lead-safe certification another $300 per person, said Ernest Gilbert, co-owner and general manager of DreamMaker Bath & Kitchen in Palmetto.

His firm also has purchased several lead-detection kits at $20 each, and expects to soon spend several hundred dollars on the protective suits for workers. Those will be a recurring expense, as the suits are disposable and can only be used once.

He also said those higher costs will be passed on to customers, but said “it’s hard to say” how much that will be.

The impact might not be as deeply felt in Manatee because the county’s housing stock is relatively younger, he said.

According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, nearly 58 percent of Manatee homes were built in 1980 or later. That compares to 57 percent for Florida as a whole and 40 percent for the nation.

“We have a newer housing stock, so it won’t have as much of an impact as in older parts of the country,” Gilbert said. “But we are very concerned about lead paint and the dangers to people, especially children, so we’ll do whatever is necessary to be safe.”

—The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Duane Marsteller, transportation/growth and development reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.