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Sometimes, going backward can put you a step ahead. Last week, 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. As far as anyone can tell–and the full practical implications are still murky–his decision seems to turn back the clock, so that an older, tougher rule will once again be law of the land.

“It’s been a very long, very worthwhile struggle,” said 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 law, 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, insisted 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,” said Vallone in a statement to City Limits. “Since the council passed this bill, the number of children whom the city has tested is up, yet the number of reported cases is down. The purpose was always to protect children, and we think [Local Law 38] will do just that.”

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. (Federal guidelines require both of these as safety checks, since the process of removing lead paint can create huge amounts of toxic dust.) The law was roundly condemned by environmental scientists and public health experts, and earlier this month, the federal environmental agency also sent a brusque rebuke to the city of New York, warning that the feds don’t much like the law, either.

“The judge’s decision is very clear in stating that the City Council cannot make public health policy that has widespread impact on kids’ health in a hurried, backroom manner,” said Matthew Chachere, staff attorney to the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, a housing advocacy group. Chachere challenged Vallone’s figures, pointing out that good data on the law’s impact is not yet available.

The previous lead law, now apparently restored by York’s decision, was not exactly uncontroversial: Advocates have sued successive mayoral administrations for 15 years to try to force them to implement that old law, and the city has been found in contempt of court four times.

But Chachere was optimistic, given the judge’s strongly worded decision and elections around the corner, that the City Council could craft and pass a new and more tenant-friendly law. “I think they’re going to have to handle this issue much more carefully.”

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