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California initiative to shift lead-paint cleanup costs to taxpayers comes under scrutiny

SACRAMENTO — Proponents of a California ballot initiative to have taxpayers, not paint companies, pay for lead-paint cleanup while overturning a landmark court ruling that made three manufacturers liable for the cost are in for a grilling this afternoon by state lawmakers.
A joint committee hearing at the Capitol will zero in on a $2 billion environmental cleanup initiative that Sherwin-Williams, ConAgra and NL Industries hope to land on the November ballot. The paint companies launched the initiative — titling it the “Healthy Homes and Schools Act” — after an unfavorable ruling in a Santa Clara County case that it has been fighting for more than 17 years.
“It is important for the public to learn more about this initiative bankrolled by the manufacturers of deadly lead paint,” Assemblyman Mark Stone, a Santa Cruz Democrat who heads the Assembly Committee on Judiciary, said in a statement. “The hearing will provide the public with information about how the initiative will reverse an appellate court decision holding them financially responsible for cleaning up dangerous lead in the homes of California residents, and instead shift that responsibility to the taxpayers of the state.”
Late last year, an appeals court mostly upheld a 2014 trial court ruling in Santa Clara County, making the companies liable for hundreds of millions in cleanup costs on homes built before 1951. The decision requires them to pay into an abatement fund for seven counties — Santa Clara, Alameda, Los Angeles, Monterey, San Mateo, Solano, Ventura — as well as for Oakland, San Diego and San Francisco.
The companies created a public nuisance, the court found, by marketing the paint long after they became aware of the severe health effects of exposure. Earlier this year, the California Supreme Court declined to review the case.
Lead poisoning is a serious public health issue that can cause irreversible brain damage to children as well as premature birth and miscarriage. And even though lead paint was banned in homes and toys in 1978, hundreds of thousands of California homes built before then still have it.
“The problem didn’t go away after 1978, and it is going to be around for a long time to come,” said Larry Brooks, head of Alameda County Healthy Homes program, which does lead abatement. Brooks said his county alone averages more than 350 cases annually.
If the companies’ ballot initiative is successful, however, lead paint would no longer be deemed a public nuisance in California; trial courts could not use the landmark decision as a precedent for future rulings on lead-paint lawsuits filed in other parts of the state; and California would borrow $2 billion for a statewide cleanup of lead, mold and other environmental hazards. The total cost to the taxpayers is estimated to be $3.9 billion.
The companies have argued that a statewide cleanup is necessary and that the court ruling unfairly labels older California homes as public nuisances, putting homeowners at risk of lawsuits and lowering their home values.
But the appellate court decision says the companies’ assertion — that the original court ruling declared individual properties to be public nuisances — is not true. “Not so,” the appellate panel wrote. “The trial court ordered defendants to abate the public nuisance they had created, but it did not identify any specific properties. The abatement plan itself is designed to identify and remediate the individual properties upon which defendants’ public nuisance exists.”
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Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams, whose office took a leading role in the case and a recent $60 million settlement reached with one of the three defendants, NL Industries, says that the companies are engaged in a “disinformation campaign” to mislead voters into absolving them of liability.
“We’re talking about poisoning toddlers and infants,” he said, “and companies that knowingly marketed the product.”
Meanwhile, state lawmakers have introduced a package of bills to protect homeowners and make it easier to sue paint companies. One proposal, by Assemblyman Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, would charge a fee to paint manufacturers to help pay for lead abatement on homes — a charge that would only take effect if the ballot initiative passed.
Reporter Paul Rogers contributed to this story. 

WATCH LIVE: The hearing is scheduled to begin at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday. You can watch it live at


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