Federal government backs away from major role in tackling lead hazards NATION

August 24, 1991|By New York Times News Service &&TC

WASHINGTON -- After announcing an ambitious plan last spring to reduce children's exposure to lead, the Bush administration has now decided that while the program is urgent, the federal government will not take a major role in it, either financially or by seeking new laws.

Earlier this year, the administration outlined a plan for widespread testing of homes for lead hazards. The plan called for certification of those who would test for lead and clean it up, and treatment for affected children. Lead can cause damage to the developing nervous system.

The plan did not say how much the federal government should do, but it suggested that several of the major requirements could be effectively handled by regulations to be issued by the administration.

At the time, Dr. William Roper, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, said: "We believe that lead poisoning is the No. 1 environmental problem facing America's children. Therefore, it will take a major societal effort to eliminate it."

But at a hearing last month and in interviews with administration officials since then, officials said the administration "does not see that this is a necessary federal role" to require that homes be tested, to require homeowners to disclose results once they have them or to establish standards for those who test or clean up lead hazards.

Administration officials said their plan to attack lead hazards always contemplated giving the largest share of the job to states, local governments and private associations.

Officials of the Centers for Disease Control, which largely drew up the administration's earlier plans, were prepared to take a broad role in the cleanup before last month's hearing. But a few days before the hearing, White House officials altered the written testimony of Dr. Vernon Houk, a top official of the disease-control agency.

The Office of Management and Budget made him add a statement that "the administration sees no reason for the federal government to legislate or regulate" the cleanup of lead poisoning now and that the administration would not support a House bill that was based on its previously announced plans.

Representative Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., the author of the bill, angrily accused the administration of "backing away from this problem." Mr. Waxman, who is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment, said that he had drafted the bill based almost entirely on the language in the administration's plan, "and now the administration is not even backing the proposal they were trying to take credit for earlier in the year."

Objections to the bill have come from the National Association of Realtors, which fears that disclosure of lead hazards will force homeowners to clean up their homes, thus adding to the price of a home.

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