Busted by the EPA: A Coastal Remodeler Faces the RRP Music
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced last month that it has fined three U.S. contractors for violating the agency's regulations on containment and disposal of possible lead contamination during renovation, repair, and painting activities — the "Lead RRP" rule. The agency has settled with three contractors for varying amounts, according to an agency press release (" EPA Crackdown: Over $17K in Fines Levied for RRP Violations"). Included among the unlucky three were two coastal contractors: Colin Wentworth, owner of an apartment building in Rockland, Maine, who came to the EPA's notice when video of a crew scraping paint appeared on YouTube (fine: $10,000); and Valiant Home Remodelers, a third-generation New Jersey company specializing in replacement windows and doors, siding, roofing, sunrooms, and awnings (fine: $1500). The EPA got interested in Valiant as the result of a complaint from a neighbor who noticed one of the company's crew removing vinyl siding from a house, according to company marketing director Paul Pelosi. Coastal Connection spoke with Pelosi this week to learn the details of the incident, and he was more than willing to discuss the event — "After all," he says, "who doesn't know by this time?" "It was a sort of a perfect storm," explains Pelosi. "The lead folks in charge of EPA Region 2 are located in a town where we were doing some work. And that by itself wouldn't have been enough, but a neighbor noticed us taking vinyl siding off the house and called the EPA." Vinyl siding wouldn't ordinarily present a lead issue, Pelosi notes; but by the time EPA officials showed up at the site, the job had moved on to window replacement. Later on, Pelosi learned that the home's owner had already had the house tested for lead, with negative results. "But it had been several years earlier," he says, "and the owner couldn't find the documentation. And in any case, we weren't aware of it at the time. So we couldn't wave a piece of paper at the EPA and say €˜Hey, go away.' We didn't have the paperwork in hand. So, shame on us." Worse for Valiant, the workers at the site the day the EPA arrived were not trained or certified in accordance with the RRP rule. The company's skilled people had gotten their EPA training and certification, Pelosi says, "and we started the job with a certified supervisor on site." But this happened to be the week that Valiant held its annual charity event. "Each year we raise a five-figure amount to donate to charity," Pelosi says. "So the certified people had left the job that day to help set things up for the event." Left alone on the job were workers with no EPA certifications, including some temporary summer hires. "One of those summer help people, on his first day, took one of those windows and laid it on the ground, as opposed to on some sort of plastic," says Pelosi. "And when the EPA asked, €˜Okay, who has certification here?' nobody could produce that documentation. So those were the two central issues of the complaint." One possibility that came up in discussions with the agency, says Pelosi, was the option of a hearing with a third party arbitrator. "By now the exact terminology is getting a little hazy in my mind," Pelosi says, "but it's a situation where an outsider, an impartial arbitrator listens and recommends a settlement. And we said, €˜Yeah, that is what we'd like to do," and the EPA lawyer said, €˜No, it isn't what you'd like to do. And if you don't believe me, doesn't matter, cause I won't agree to it.' But what they did agree to was a pre-hearing conference, a non-binding situation." By the time of that semi-informal meeting, Pelosi had tightened up his ship. "We got together with them and said, €˜Okay, let's talk about what we're doing now.' And we showed them the practices that we have put into place. It's documented — we have our own internal manual on it — and we gave them a synopsis of the whole thing. And everybody in the organization, including people like myself, who never handle a hammer or a screwdriver, is certified at this stage. And so are our subcontractors. And we explained the various internal forms and methods we use to make sure that everything goes according to the law." "All things considered," says Pelosi, "I think that they were very impressed that, even if on that date they inspected us we really weren't doing the best we could, certainly at this point in time and henceforth we take this very seriously. And I'm sure that was part of the reason for tempering the fine." For Pelosi, the episode is water over the dam — something to learn from and move on. Pelosi has a bachelor's degree in Chemistry and a Master of Business Administration, and spent years working for Ashland Chemicals in New Jersey (he left to join his relatives' construction company when Ashland relocated his division to Ohio). In his old job, Pelosi had grown accustomed to working with government regulators — occasionally the EPA, but more commonly the USDA and the FDA. So after Valiant's brush with the EPA enforcers, he was expecting a little bad publicity, and prepared to take it in stride. "Was I surprised by the EPA press release?" asks Pelosi. "Not in the slightest. I knew this was the kind of stuff they were going to talk about, and I prepared the people here for it. I told our staff, €˜You know what, this is not going to go unnoticed — and so be it. We can't change what happened that day. All we can do is move forward and do things the right way, and possibly even have the EPA hold us up as the right way of doing things.'" No question about it, says Pelosi, the experience has changed the way Valiant operates. "The people out on the jobs, it changes the way they work every day — at least when we run into the lead target houses, which we do fairly often. And our sales people sell differently — they make sure of what they're dealing with in terms of lead, and if it is an issue, they make sure the customer is made aware of it. And they document it, as do the folks in the field, and then I, among the many hats I wear here, have to follow up on that paperwork. So yeah, it makes a difference, it certainly does." While Pelosi's resigned to the extra work, he's on the fence about the policy's cost. "It's a way of life," he says. "I don't want to say it's a burden, but it's more work, no two ways about it. It's certainly more expense." In his old job in the chemical industry, Pelosi says, "when cost went up I was happy, because that allowed me to charge more. When technology changed, or certain chemicals could no longer be used, the alternatives invariably cost more; and you'd charge more. You'd make more money. You'd have to come up with something that was more specialized, and thus grow your margins. I always viewed things from that viewpoint. But now, you know, working in remodeling, it's rough to pass that kind of cost increase along to the customer. Especially if not everyone else is." In his brief encounter with the EPA, says Pelosi, he thinks the agency may have learned as much as he did. "I suspect that it was an eye-opener for them," he says. "I said to them, €˜I'm sure to you it's all random — besides the guy who put shutters on your house last week, you don't really know one remodeler from another. But here's the deal: You want us around. You don't want to fine people like us out of business. We have been around 56 years, and the only way we could have done that is by doing things right. And it's a family business — we've been doing it for three generations, and we want to do it for three more generations. So the point is, you're worried about us? Well, we can get in line. It's Joe Blow working out of the back of his station wagon who will simply change his name and change his license plate if you catch him. So be aware of that — fining people like us, it's productive, but it's not where the real problem is going to lie.'"