The Star-Ledger

Trenton Okays Long-Stalled Lead Paint Bill

Abatement Program, Which Includes Landlord Aid, Took 10 Years

The Star-Ledger – Tuesday, January 13, 2004

By RUSSELL BEN-ALI
Star-Ledger Staff

The Legislature yesterday achieved what lawmakers have vowed to do for more than a decade, approving the creation of a statewide lead abatement fund for cash-strapped landlords.

The bill, passed by both the Senate and General Assembly, establishes the Lead Hazard Control Assistance Fund, a pool of grants and low-interest loans set aside for landlords who can't afford the costly process of removing lead- based paint from aging buildings.

The fund will help landlords evaluate lead-based paint hazards and then remove lead paint from their rental properties. The bill also creates a fund to relocate lead-poisoned children and establishes a registry of lead-safe housing in the state.

Loans up to $150,000 as well as outright grants will be available to landlords based on financial need. To support the program, the state would raise between $7 million and $14 million from sales taxes on paint and additional money from a new $20 fee for each apartment that is inspected for lead paint. The program is a modest start. State officials have estimated it would cost $50 billion to make all of New Jersey's old houses and apartment buildings lead-free.

Even minimal exposure to invisible lead dust poses a serious health risk, particularly to children, and can cause permanent damage to the brain and other organs.

More than 5,000 New Jersey children tested positive for high levels of lead in their blood in 2002, but the actual number may be much higher because more than 100,000 children under 3 were not tested at all, according to a state report.

The effects of lead poisoning cost the state millions in health care, special education and criminal justice expenses, lawmakers say.

Despite the crisis, the lead paint bill has taken a torturous journey through the Legislature. It was first proposed in 1994 by then-Assemblyman Jack Collins (R-Salem) but never made it to a floor vote in both houses. Collins continued to offer similar bills that repeatedly made it out of committee over the years only to fail as legislators, under pressure from special interest groups, argued over funding the measure and what shape it should take.

The bill got a big boost last June when Sen. Ron Rice (D- Essex), a prime sponsor, made a dramatic, eleventh-hour stand by vowing to withhold support for the governor's budget until senators approved a lead paint bill.

Fierce debate over how to finance the fund and complaints from competing real estate, tenant and children's health organizations threatened both the Senate and Assembly versions.

"The problem was always the funding, No. 1," said Assemblywoman Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), co-sponsor of the Assembly bill, A- 1947. "But the goal was to protect kids in a place that has old housing. It's inappropriate to allow children to be exposed to this, to literally get sick."

An amended bill finally passed yesterday, 38-0 in the Senate and 75-0-1 in the Assembly.

Rice, who proposed a similar Senate bill that failed to pass in 2000, said yesterday's vote translates into help for thousands of urban children robbed of their intellect.

"If we can prevent those kind of disabilities that prevent our children from doing well in school, then it brightens their future," Rice said after the vote, calling the bill a compromise but a good start.

Others still find the measure lacking.

"If you calculate the number of houses that are at risk, the amount of money is a drop in the bucket," said Steven Marcus, director of the New Jersey Poison Information & Education System. "But at least it's a start, a very important start, hopefully in primary prevention" of lead poisoning.

John Weber, an organizer for the watchdog group New Jersey Citizen Action, who made a last- minute pitch Thursday but failed to get lawmakers to include inspections of one- and two-family rental properties, also called the bill a compromise.

"There is currently no statewide program to help homeowners or small landlords with the expensive process of lead removal," said Weber.

New Jersey banned lead-based paint for residential use in 1971 and the federal government followed suit seven years later. But the paint remains on the walls of older buildings, covered by lead-free coats, and poses a threat in the form of peeling or chipping paint.

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