Paint it Over

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Sometimes a step into the past can be a big leap forward. In October, a state Supreme Court judge overturned the city’s one-year-old lead paint abatement law–and lead paint activists were jubilant.

Justice Louis York said that the city’s law, crafted by political expediency instead of a desire to protect public health, had skipped essential environmental review processes and was therefore invalid. For now, the decision seems to turn back the clock, reverting to an older, tougher rule.

“It’s been a very long, very worthwhile struggle,” says Marie Dixon, an activist with a lead-poisoned child. “His decision is based on protecting children as opposed to political mumbo jumbo.”

Lead paint can cause serious permanent brain damage in children who ingest the dust or chips–roughly 1,000 New York City children each year are diagnosed with lead paint poisoning. Most older buildings have lead paint, but the price of safely removing all that toxic paint can become colossal, turning the issue of lead paint abatement into a highly politicized battleground between environmental activists and landlords.

The city’s current legislation, Local Law 38, was passed last year after months of secretive wrangling and deal-making at the City Council. Its backers, including City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, insist that it was a reasonable compromise between protecting children and minimizing clean-up costs. “It’s disappointing to learn of this decision, which we hope will be overturned,” Vallone said in a statement.

But housing and children’s advocates lambasted Local Law 38 as a sell-out to the landlord lobby. They found two provisions especially dangerous: that landlords neither had to hire certified workers to do the technically tricky lead paint removal work, nor do any testing afterward. The law was also condemned by environmental scientists and public health experts, as well as brusquely critiqued by the federal Environmental Protection Agency in a letter this fall.

Given the judge’s strongly worded decision and citywide elections around the corner, politicians may now have the momentum to craft and pass and new, more tenant-friendly law, says Matthew Chachere, staff attorney to the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, who worked on the suit. “I think they’re going to have to handle this issue much more carefully.”