Voices
Illustration by Cameron Thorp

Agent John

The complex and expensive procedures of a federally approved paint job

Issue: "2010 Books Issue," July 3, 2010

John came over to install my new electric dryer. It was a straightforward operation.

If he had come for a paint job or replacement window, he would have been required to read to me from a pamphlet entitled "Renovate Right: Important Lead Hazard Information for Families." Then he would have cordoned off the "contaminated" area, put out "Lead hazard area" signs, and laid plastic (not drop cloths) six feet in every direction from the work site (10 feet, if outside). These are the EPA regs that went into effect on April 22 and apply nationally to everyone with a station wagon, ladder, and "handyman" sign. At the kitchen table John consulted his shiny EPA manual:

"Executive Order 12898, Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations: Established as Federal Executive Policy on Environmental Justice. Its main provision directs federal agencies to the greatest extent practicable and permitted by law to make environmental justice part of their mission. . . ."

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The words "justice" and "minorities" and "mission" seemed a little odd in a painter's handbook. Almost like the EPA is a priesthood of the environment. Still, I'm sure it is very wise to be careful with lead. How much is reality and how much is special interest-driven is always hard to know, of course. Wasn't it another government agency, the FDA, that signed off on a health claim that Frito-Lay chips, which are fried in polyunsaturated fats, may be a blessing because they can help you reduce your intake of saturated fats, and that's good for your cardio­vascular system?

I was amused as John described the protective gear he has to wear. "It's almost like you're working in a radioactive area," he said. "What if you have to go to the bathroom?" I asked. "Even crazier than that," he said. "If I need a tool that I forgot in my truck, I have to get out of my little suit-I've got this mask on-suit, boots, gloves, hood."

"It's a lot of plastic"-John returned to environmental issues-"and it all has to be disposed of. You can't wash it or clean it." Drop cloths you shake out at the end of a day? Forgetaboutit. The responsible EPA-regulated contractor takes his contractor's trash bag, carefully places the hazmat sheeting in it, filling it no more than 2/3 full, and hauls it to the landfill.

And if you are not a responsible contractor? The penalties run high: $37,000 per day per violation. You probably don't have that kind of cash lying around anymore, because you spent it on the mandatory eight-week course to become EPA-certified. (If you are a company, the bill is $550, of which $300 is for an EPA number.) John was one of 48 in his graduating class. That's $250 times 48-a nice piece of change for a day's work in the EPA.

The certification effectively makes John an agent of the EPA, which is fun for me, since I've never had a federal agent in my home before. John doesn't think so. He's a big states-rights guy, and also is concerned that his promotion opens the door for a lot of litigation, which will also raise contractor's insurance. If you built new shelves in little Johnny's room, and he gets sick, you are a target.

"Right now this seems benign," John said, "but it sets up a precedent. It sounds good if you say, 'Teachers must be mandated to report evidence of child abuse.' But there is still a danger in it." Will teachers have to report as child abuse someone instructing a child that Jesus is the way?

My house was built in 1912. That means it, and 38 million others, fall under the edict. I'm glad I had the bathroom renovated years ago. John said the new protocol would add $1,000 to the bill-what with his extra costs in time, equipment, gear, and his new HEPA vacuum cleaner. (He owns two, at $1,100 each; filters go for $70, and bags $12.)

Small price to pay for "environmental justice," I say. If John loses his job, maybe he can join a union. Unions take care of people too. In any case, it's a good thing John knows electric dryers.
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Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again. Follow Andrée on Twitter @Andreespeterson.

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