Removing it will cost a fortune

February 06, 1991|By Jack Reilly

THE DEPARTMENT of Housing and Urban Development estimates the cost of removing lead paint from one house at $5,500 to $7,700. The Environmental Defense Fund offers a guess of $3,000 to $10,000. Mayor Schmoke's task force on lead-paint poisoning suggests a range of $8,000 to $10,000. Overall, we are told, eradicating all lead paint from American homes will cost $10 billion.

These estimates are so bogus they would make the Pentagon blush.

"What goes in a report and what it costs do not bear each other out," says Vance Morris, who oversees Maryland's grant program for lead abatement. Before a cap was placed on the grants issued under a pilot program, abatement costs were running $8,000 to $40,000 per house.

For $8,000 it may be possible to do a small, two-bedroom alley house in Baltimore with about 700 to 800 square feet of floor space; $40,000 should cover a large, three-story, five-bedroom row house with about 3,500 square feet. However, grants from the state's program were recently capped at $15,000.

Two organizations -- Baltimore Jobs and Energy, a non-profit program, and City Building, a municipal agency -- have done much of the abatement work in the city. Jim McCabe of City Building says his agency can do a normal three-bedroom city row house for $13,500, but he would not hazard a guess how much a private contractor would charge for the same work.

Dennis Livingston, of Baltimore Jobs and Energy, claims that his non-profit firm can do the same three-bedroom house for $15,000, and he does not feel that an informed private contractor would charge much more. Both men concede that these costs could easily escalate if the house were detached or semi-detached, or if there were exterior lead paint to deal with. As for large, frame Victorian summer houses like those in Mount Washington, they both say that abatement costs could easily run from $70,000 to more than $100,000.

Lead abatement workers are supposed to be trained, tested and certified. If we have specially licensed contractors whose work has to be inspected and certified by industrial hygienists, and if we impose government-mandated deadlines, lead paint abatement could easily become the environmental cash cow of the '90s, much as asbestos was in the '80s. Everyone except the consumer and the taxpayer did well with asbestos. With schools and public buildings under the gun of federal deadlines and a shortage of qualified contractors, it is still difficult to get this semi-skilled cleaning and hauling work done for less than $500 per man hour.

From these fees we can expect insurance companies to take their bite. In 1984, one asbestos abatement contractor I talked to had had his premiums go from $6,000 a year to $150,000. Contractors must also pay for disposable suits and plastic sheets, as well as for hauling and disposing of hazardous waste. (Trash and debris from lead abatement are not considered hazardous waste. In Baltimore a great deal of it gets incinerated, putting the lead into the air. But if the debris is reclassified as hazardous, disposal costs will escalate.)

Among the asbestos remover's other risks and overhead are the costs of paying workers to go through the state Environmental Protection Agency abatement training program and, of course, the $6.50 per hour for workers, the going rate in Baltimore.

Lead paint abatement will undoubtedly succumb to some of these escalating pressures. Among those familiar with this work, there is little respect for the poorly supervised abatement practices of many private contractors. Enforcement of the abatement regulations needs to be tightened, as do the regulations themselves if we are to go ahead with a full-scale program to remove all lead paint.

No one knows what the cost per home for lead paint abatement will be, but in the unlikely event that it can be held to an average of $15,000, the tab for Baltimore city would be more than $3 billion, about twice the annual budget for the city. To de-lead the entire United States would cost $861 billion, with some likelihood that the final bill would be two or three times that amount.

Jack Reilly heads a private building inspection in the Baltimore-Washington area. This is the third of three essays on the lead-paint problem.

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