WASHINGTON – State officials have charged five home-improvement contractors with criminal water pollution for “power washing” operations that stripped lead paint from Baltimore buildings and let it run off into storm drains.
The Environmental Crimes Unit of the Attorney General’s Office said the contractors were charged for paint-stripping operations between September and November 1998. In all five cases, the stripped paint was allowed to run into storm drains and in four of those cases the runoff tested positive for lead.
Similar pollution charges have been brought before, but this is the first time that a group of contractors has been charged at the same time for mishandling lead-paint operations.
While power-washing lead paint from buildings is legal, contractors must be licensed and must provide workers with safety training for both the lead in the old paints and the chemicals used in paint removal, said David Eick, a pollution control analyst with the Baltimore Department of Public Works.
“Most contractors are following the rules, but pollution occurs when contractors fail to follow safety guidelines in an effort to cut costs or time,” Eick said.
Paul Stancil, an investigator with the Environmental Crimes Unit, said the popularity of exposed brick on older Baltimore townhouses has “spawned a number of fly-by-night contractors.”
Contractors might fail to contain and collect the chemical flow, or they may leave the properly collected liquid waste in drums that disappear or get “accidentally” knocked over during the night, Stancil said.
Besides the environmental threat posed by lead-based paint, the chemicals used in the removal process are also caustic. Eick said officials have found contractors using a variety of acids to remove paint. The solvents may also damage the city’s concrete sewers, he said.
“Sometimes they just throw on whatever they’ve got,” he said.
The problem first came to the attention of public works officials in the early 1990s, after boaters described red or pink plumes flowing into Baltimore’s harbor. The department followed the pollutants back into the storm drains and discovered polluting contractors.
The boom in old-home renovations has boosted the problem.
“There’s more (renovation) than I’ve ever seen in my 16 years,” as an agent in Baltimore, said Jakob Metz, assistant manager for the O’Conor, Piper and Flynn real estate office in Fells Point.
Metz said stripping paint from an old home “improves curb appeal immensely” for a minimal investment. When he gives prospective buyers pictures of houses for sale they “invariably circle the ones with the exposed brick.”
Eick said homeowners have unknowingly added to the problem by going with the cheapest contractor.
“It makes it very hard for the legal contractors to operate on a competitive playing field,” with contractors who cut corners, Eick said.
But Stancil said prosecutors look for “some type of malice” before they file charges in power-washing cases. “Mistakes don’t get prosecuted,” he said.
The latest cases were all in Baltimore. Charges were filed against:
— Everett Windom Ellis Jr., charged with unlawful discharge of a pollutant into state waters in connection with a Sept. 17 incident.
— Otha William High, charged with unlawful discharge and acting without a valid license from an Oct. 5 operation.
— Alma Jeter, charged with unlawful discharge and acting without a license, from a Sept. 26 job.
— Anthony Randolph Lewis, charged with unlawful discharge for a Nov. 24 job.
— James Joseph Lucas, charged with unlawful discharge and acting without a license in an Oct. 15 operation.
For owners of older rowhouses, removing the layers of old paint from the home may be appealing, but preservationists point out it might not actually be in the best interests of the houses.
“We generally frown upon (paint removal) because it is hard to control water pressure and may cause structural damage,” said Richard Brand, of the Maryland Historical Trust. “The preferred technique is to leave it alone.”
Brand said some houses were painted to protect weak bricks often used in older construction. Removing the paint may actually endanger the houses by exposing soft brick that erodes rapidly, he said.
Besides, he said, he does not find exposed brick that attractive. “I’m a preservationist, but I love the look of peeling paint.”