Judge extends rules on lead paint He says state law also applies to minor repairs

Subject of 2-year dispute

But court rejects other claims made by tenants' lawyers

February 23, 1996|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,STAFF WRITER

A Baltimore judge toughened Maryland's new lead-paint regulations yesterday, ruling that young children in older rental housing need to be protected from exposure to toxic paint dust when even minor repair work is performed on their homes.

Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan struck down two provisions intended to help landlords save costs, saying a court cannot permit "baseless and potentially dangerous regulations."

But the judge rejected claims by lawyers for Baltimore tenants that the rules overall were lax and illegally adopted by the Maryland Department of the Environment.

The regulations are to take effect tomorrow, nearly two years after the General Assembly enacted a pioneering law intended to reduce childhood lead poisoning while preserving the state's dwindling stock of affordable housing. Landlords and children's advocates have been disputing ever since how to carry out the law.

"Property owners need to understand that while they are getting liability protection, they cannot continue increasing hazards for children," said Ruth Ann Norton, director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning.

State officials had no comment on the judge's ruling. But during a hearing Wednesday on the suit, Kathy Kinsey, an assistant attorney general, said requiring dust controls on even minor repairs could undermine the balance between reducing lead poisoning and providing relief for financially pressed landlords.

"If the costs of treatment and maintenance are prohibitive, property owners simply aren't going to do the work," she warned.

Swallowing even tiny amounts of lead dust can slow the development of children younger than 6, and can cause lasting learning disabilities and behavior problems.

Maryland had 1,793 cases of lead poisoning in 1994, the last year for which figures are available. All but about 200 of those were in Baltimore.

State officials estimate that 95 percent of Maryland's 159,000 rental housing units built before 1950 contain lead paint. The law requires owners of these units to reduce lead poisoning risks in their properties, mainly by removing lead paint that is peeling or flaking and then repainting. In return, property owners would be shielded from lawsuits filed by current or former tenants claiming that their children were poisoned by lead paint dust.

Landlords contend that thousands of lead poisoning lawsuits filed in recent years threaten to force them out of business.

The lead paint rules, proposed on an emergency basis in November, generally require landlords to protect tenants from exposure to lead dust when making repairs. But in response to landlords' complaints about the costs of compliance, the state exempted plumbing or electrical repairs and "minor" removal of up to 25 square feet of paint per room.

The tenants' lawyers claimed that those exemptions were "glaring loopholes" that would allow enough lead dust to be generated to poison young children, and they cited an internal state memorandum supporting their contention.

However, the judge rejected the tenants' lawyers other claims. The tenants' lawsuit contended that the regulations had been illegally adopted on an emergency basis without a public hearing. The tenants also wanted repaired apartments to be spot-checked for lead dust, arguing that that is the only way to know if cleanups had been done properly.

The judge said the state had the legal authority to perform dust tests, but he said the state also was within its rights not to do them. And he ruled that the state adopted the regulations properly.

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