Making a Tough Call

John G. Swanson
May 23, 2011
COLUMN : Opening Remarks | Management

Despite all the objections I’ve heard about the Environmental Protection Renovation, Repair and Paint rules, most in the industry argue that if the laws are on the books, they need to be enforced. Otherwise, the companies that play by the rules—investing in training and following lead safe procedures—will be undercut in the market by those that don’t.

Enforcement started in May. A Maine renovator now faces fines of $150,000 for not using EPA’s lead safe work procedures. The charges came after a video was posted anonymously on YouTube showing two workers removing paint from the exterior of a multifamily unit without taking any steps to control dust or debris.

When I read about the case, my first question was who would shoot such a video and then post it online? Was it a competitor? Or was it a disgruntled employee or child safety advocate? I decided to ask WDweekly readers if they would report violations of the EPA’s lead paint rules.

More than half our respondents said they wouldn’t report such a violation, preferring to mind their own business. About 20 percent said they would or have reported violations and nearly 25 percent said, possibly, but they weren’t sure. It’s a tough call, especially given the near-unanimous misgivings people within our industry have about the law.

“A $150,000 fine? Are you kidding me?” one reader responded. “What is that truly going to solve? So now the contractor files bankruptcy, suppliers and lenders get stuck and [he] and his family lose all their possessions.”

“Enforcement is needed since it is the law,” commented another, but he also argues that the penalty has to be in relationship to the offense. “Does a $150,000 fine make sense? A few months ago this was legal.” A second offense would be another story, he noted, but he also asks who gains by putting a small company out of business.

“This law is costing all contractors money every day,” another reader said. “Only the vigorous enforcement of this law and the imposing of maximum fines will have any chance of eliminating the ‘illegal’ contractor. When we are all playing by the same rules, we will be able to recoup at least more of the costs of this additional burden.”

Most people I meet in the industry play by the rules. In the past, I’ve heard window and door executives grumble about new regulations or requirements—whether it be for energy performance, impact, or something else—but they usually make their peace and move on. The rumblings and complaints about past issues pale in comparison to those expressed in frustration with the EPA’s RRP program.

There are good reasons. The most important is that the rules—as written—may do more harm than good. The added costs of hiring a contractor that follows the EPA procedures will lead more homeowners to do the work themselves, find a contractor or handyman that doesn’t follow the law or not do the job at all.

I don’t know whether the EPA will have a change of heart or listen, but window and door dealers and installers, as well as all contractors, need to keep pressing their case. Even the law’s most ardent backers would have to admit the law is flawed. The industry needs to be proactive, too. We can’t just argue against the RRP rule; we need to outline what reasonable steps should be taken to protect children, our workers and the public from lead.

And we need to be proactive on the enforcement front. You may not fully believe in the rules, but they’re on the books. And there are going to be cases where contractors are willfully ignoring the law and endangering the health of a child or industry workers. As I stated earlier, that’s a tough call for anyone to make, but I think some of us will have to do it.