$1 Billion Lead Cleanup Lawsuit Underway after 13 Years of Legal Maneuvering

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

An estimated 5 million older homes in 10 California cities and counties still have dangerous amounts of lead paint, despite it being banned from use in 1978—and those locales would like a little cleanup help from the paint industry.

Around $1 billion in help.

A lawsuit to corral that money has been kicking around the state legal system since 2000, but the trial didn’t begin until Monday. The local governments, including the counties of Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Mateo, Monterey and Alameda, are suing five paint manufacturers in Santa Clara County Superior Court as compensation for their role in spreading around a product known to be hazardous since the 1890s.

Exposure to lead causes permanent brain damage and about half a million American children have too much of it in their system. Lead lowers IQs, causes learning disabilities and has been linked to criminal behavior. It has also been linked to stunted growth, seizures and a range of maladies.

The lawsuit differs from other unsuccessful attempts in seven other states to sue lead paint manufacturers by arguing the companies violated state public nuisance laws, rather than health laws. Government lawyers won’t have to show that specific individuals were harmed in a direct way, only that the industry assisted in the creation of a public nuisance.

The industry has fought the lawsuit up and down the state judicial system a couple of times, but a court hearing on the its merits is finally underway. The lawsuit’s arguments follow those made in a 2006 California appellate court opinion that called the nuisance approach a “viable theory.” The five manufacturers, Atlantic Richfield Co., Sherwin-Williams Co., ConAgra Grocery Products, DuPont Co. and NL Industries Inc., disagree.

Lead removal programs are still an expensive item on local, state and national budgets despite decades of remediation. The programs, which often benefit minorities and low-income families who live where the paint is most prevalent, are also a source of deep political disagreement.

Congress created the Office of Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Control in 1991 and funds its efforts to disseminate federal funds to cash-strapped localities. The Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee approved a cut of more than 50% in lead abatement programs based on the House budget passed in March.   

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Calif. Governments Seek $1B in Lead Paint Cleanup (Associated Press)

Paint Makers’ Trial Starts in California Lead Lawsuit (by Joel Rosenblatt, Bloomberg)

Hazardous Lead Paint: Legal Battle Comes to Trial in California (by Howard Mintz, San Jose Mercury News)

Austerity Is Leaving Children Sick with Lead Poisoning (by Harry Stein, ThinkProgress)

America's Real Criminal Element: Lead (by Kevin Drum, Mother Jones)

House GOP Cuts Funding for Lead Removal in Half (by Kevin Drum, Mother Jones)

Lead and Crime: A Linkfest (by Kevin Drum, Mother Jones)

Leave a comment