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Testimony Before the Council of the District of Columbia Lead Hazard Prevention and Elimination Act of 2008

Wednesday, October 1, 2008
George S. Hawkins, Esq., Director, DDOE

Testimony Before the Council of the District of Columbia
Lead Hazard Prevention and Elimination Act of 2008
(October 1, 2008)

Good morning, Councilmember Graham and members of the Committee on Public Works and the Environment.  My name is George Hawkins and I am the Director of the District Department of the Environment.  I’d like to thank you for the opportunity to testify on the “Lead Hazard Prevention and Elimination Act of 2008.”   I am here today to present the Executive’s point of view on the legislation.  I want to state up-front that I admire the leadership you have demonstrated on lead issues over more than a decade, and that I am pleased to be working with you and your staff to respond to this critical issue.

DDOE is the District Government’s primary agency in responding to identified lead hazards.  As of today, October 1, 2008, the city’s two main lead programs, currently split between DDOE and the Department of Health, will be consolidated at DDOE.  In addition, I serve as the chair of the Interagency Lead Task Force, in which seven agencies and a number of environmental and health advocacy groups coordinate their efforts to reduce and prevent childhood lead poisoning.  Strong legislation and regulations are essential components for building an effective lead prevention program.  I am personally grateful for the tremendous effort and thought that has been invested in developing this Bill by your staff and the task force you convened.  As I will note, there are elements of the bill that the Administration strongly supports.  We do also have concerns over the implementation and effectiveness of several operational provisions.  In short, we applaud the general direction of the bill and many of its provisions, but cannot support the bill as drafted without further review and some changes.

There are important aspects of the bill that the Administration endorses.   The first is a fundamental change from a reactive scheme that is triggered after a child is poisoned by lead to a system that is primarily proactive and prevention-focused.  Studies show that no level of lead is considered “safe”—even trace amounts can result in adverse health impacts for children.  Therefore, we must identify and reduce lead hazards before children are exposed to them.  The Mayor absolutely supports developing a pro-active program. This legislation proposes granting the Mayor authority to designate and preemptively inspect “target areas” that exhibit high-risk characteristics, and if needed, require a protective response.  Granting this authority allows the District to target resources and enforcement actions at those properties that are most likely to contain lead hazards that are a risk to children and pregnant women.

In addition to developing a proactive response mechanism, an equally important part of the District’s lead response is its handling of cases in which a child has an Elevated Blood Level (EBL).  Under the current process, we conduct a risk assessment in properties where an EBL child resides or spends significant time.  This system, which is preserved in the proposed legislation, is an effective means of ensuring a rapid response to EBL cases, while preserving the integrity of the risk assessment.  Protecting the District’s children is the lead program’s top priority, and the District has been consistently improving its ability to do so in recent years.

The bill also creates an obligation at the turnover of a rental property built before 1978 to provide a disclosure document and a lead clearance report completed within the last 12 months.  While we have significant reservations about the expansiveness of this obligation, we would like to explore how to narrow this requirement for units that are to house children under the age of 6, pregnant women or other potential persons-at-risk.

The question then becomes how to effectively design a program that balances stronger prevention and enforcement with a means of helping property owners to meet the law’s requirements.  We are concerned that several requirements proposed would prove difficult for property owners to meet and for the District to enforce.  The chief obstacle is one of capacity. Currently, the District is underserved by certified risk assessors, lead inspectors and contractors.  As a result, the cost of conducting lead-based paint activities remains relatively high within the city, and such work is difficult to schedule.  Requirements that impact a larger segment of properties, such as a turnover provision or a presumed lead hazard, will impose greater costs upon a larger range of units in the short to medium-term until capacity increases.  The bill does attempt to address this possibility by creating a certified Lead Sampling Technician position.  However, given that this position does not currently exist in the District, property owners will face high-cost options offered by a limited pool of professionals until an adequate pool of technicians is developed.  In addition, lead sampling technicians constitute an entry-level position; they often conduct clearance examinations under specific and limited circumstances, such as to ensure renovation work did not generate a lead dust hazard.  The technician may not be ideal for conducting evaluations of entire dwelling units, particularly after abatement activities are conducted.

This capacity issue becomes a greater challenge in the context of proposed turnover provisions that would apply to all rental units in the District.  As drafted, the provision is not targeted to any particular at-risk population, and would require the work of a lead assessor, inspector or technician to generate a clearance report on virtually every unit turnover – conceivably requiring multiple certifications for the same units over the years.  This provision, in a region with a lack of suitable professionals and relatively high costs, could easily reduce the supply of rental units and increase the price, exacerbating an existing shortage of suitable rental housing.  We would like to review as well how this legislation might be modified to provide assistance to lower income families that might fall under the obligations of the statute, but have limited means to implement required actions.

The Administration also has concerns related to the legislation’s broadened definition of a risk assessment, particularly as it pertains to identifying lead levels in water.  For example, the definition imposes protocol requirements that may be difficult for assessors to achieve in the field, due to the need for six hours of non-water use before the first draw.  As you are well aware, DDOE recently convened a Water Quality Task Force and will undertake an independent study to address issues of water sampling protocols and lead levels in drinking water.  Because the independent study and input from the Task Force will address questions related to sampling protocols and testing methods, it would be preferable that separate legislation be drafted to address lead in water once we have reviewed the Task Force recommendations and conclusions.

I want to reiterate that the Administration recognizes the need for strong lead legislation that grants the District the ability to proactively eliminate lead-based paint hazards.  We seek legislation that gives the government and citizens more powerful tools in cases where children or other populations are at risk.  We are concerned, however, that the legislation as written fails to account for significant capacity issues, includes definitions that are overly broad – which may make it difficult to achieve our shared goals of reducing threats from lead while also providing adequate housing for the existing and future District residents.  Again, we respect the hard work and thought that was invested in the development of this bill, which has many positive provisions.  We look forward to working with you and the various stakeholders to shaping this bill into one that can receive our strong endorsement.   I thank you again for the opportunity to testify and look forward to answering any questions the Committee may have.