Remodeling or repainting an old home can trigger federal requirements to prevent exposure to lead-based paint. Demolishing that same home does not.
Oregon lawmakers are now hoping to help close that regulatory hole by giving cities and counties the authority to regulate the control of lead dust from home demolitions.
Demolishing older homes coated with lead paint can release toxic lead dust that disperses hundreds of feet. Those demolitions have been on the rise throughout the Northwest’s rapidly growing areas like Portland and Seattle.
Under the rules proposed in Senate Bill 871, Oregon city and county officials could require written plans for how demolition crews plan to control lead dust, outlining preventative steps such as watering down the house, erecting plastic barriers or dismantling the house piece by piece. Local governments would be able to withhold a demolition permit until developers meet the requirement.
The bill would apply to any homes older than 1978, when lead paint was no longer used. It would also grant cities the same authority for asbestos.
The bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer and Sen. Michael Dembrow, both Portland Democrats. Dembrow said the bill does not force cities to make such rules, it only grants them the authority.
Cities like Portland are interested in establishing safeguards, Dembrow said.
“They just want the statutory authority to be able to do that,” Dembrow said. “There’s a lot of concern.”
The bill comes as the Trump administration plans to cut an Environmental Protection Agency program aimed at reducing childhood lead exposure to lead paint. Meanwhile, existing EPA programs are being criticized for "endangering children's health through sloppy enforcement of lead-safe home repair rules," according to the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
The idea for legislation first surfaced in 2015, when lawmakers passed a bill tightening rules for home demolitions involving asbestos. The original language also included lead paint, but Dembrow said it was unclear at the time who would regulate lead dust, so he and other lawmakers decided to focus only on asbestos instead.
Since then, Dembrow said, awareness has grown about exposure to lead dust.
In September, EarthFix reported on a clash between neighbors and developers in Southeast Portland over home lead dust from a home slated for demolition, a conflict that helped expose the loophole in lead dust protections. Only after significant public scrutiny, and intervention from then state Senator Diane Rosenbaum, did the developer agree to additional precautions to prevent lead dust.
“The more that other states and cities take this up, the closer we’ll be towards actually protecting children and community members from lead during home demolitions,” said Kelly Campbell of Physicians for Social Responsibility, who lived around the corner from that demolished home in Portland.
“It gives community members a place to advocate for lead abatement we didn't have before,” Campbell said. “When we dealt with this in our neighborhood we went from agency to agency.”
The Home Builders Association of Portland, whose members would be among those regulated by the new rules, did not respond to requests for comment.
Some advocates for the bill expect opposition from developers.
“I think they feel that this is an effort to stop demolitions and I can tell you categorically that is not what this is about. This is about protecting people’s health,” Dembrow said.