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EPA goes after landlords over lead-paint risk

Agency says it aims to protect kids; lawyer calls it nit-picking

The Environmental Protection Agency is stepping up its enforcement of lead paint laws in the Northwest, and two major property owners in Portland soon could be paying the price.

The agency already has filed the region's biggest lead complaint against one Portland landlord, and it is mulling an even larger case against another landlord who owns 10 properties throughout the city.

The current complaint accuses property owner John Peak of 16 counts of allegedly failing to inform numerous tenants about the potential hazards of lead-based paint in their apartments. The complaint does not address whether there actually is lead-based paint in the apartments.

Each violation carries a maximum penalty of $11,000, for an estimated total of $176,000, making the complaint the biggest of its kind in the Pacific Northwest. The agency has pursued much larger, multimillion-dollar cases in several East Coast cities.

EPA officials said they filed the complaint to protect the kids who live in the low-income apartments that Peak owns. They say the point of the rule they are enforcing is to prevent lead poisoning before it occurs.

'Kids are the fundamental reason for this program,' said Bill Dunbar, an agency spokesman. 'They're the ones who are most vulnerable to lead-based paint.'

But Peak's lawyer said the EPA is nit-picking over paperwork rather than going after a real health threat.

'There's no health risk here,' attorney Joe McDonald said. 'These are not run-down apartments where the paint is peeling off. There is no evidence to show that there is any lead-based paint in any of his units. Mr. Peak has certainly never used lead-based paint.'

Bruce Long, an EPA inspector who works out of the agency's Portland office, said he received complaints from several of Peak's tenants about lead paint, including one family that was worried that their child was suffering from lead poisoning. That family has since moved out and was not available for an interview.

The agency did not test the Peak apartments for lead, although one tenant did test, and the results were positive, Long said.

But McDonald said his client never received any complaints from tenants about lead paint. And none of the half-dozen tenants interviewed randomly in the field by the Portland Tribune were aware of any problems with lead in their homes.

That's precisely the problem, the EPA's Barbara Ross said. The tenants at these apartments 'don't know about lead and they should know about it before they move in,' Ross said. 'They need to get the information before they decide whether they want to move in there, given the possibility of a health risk to their families from lead.'

The law requires that the owner of any housing built before 1978 must give renters full disclosure about the potential presence and hazards of lead paint. This entails providing renters with a written statement about lead paint on the property and an EPA-authored pamphlet titled 'Protect Your Family From Lead in Your Home.'

Attorney McDonald said Peak's policy is to provide full disclosure about lead paint. 'We just can't prove we gave (information about lead) to the renters listed in the complaint,' he said.

The EPA subpoenaed all of Peak's rental agreements between 1999 and February 2002 to see if they included warnings about lead. The agency targeted Peak because he owns a great deal of pre-1978 housing and has many children as tenants, EPA officials said.

The EPA estimates that three of four homes built before 1978 contain lead-based paint. The law does not require landlords to remove lead paint from buildings they own, only to provide full disclosure to the tenant about the risks of lead. The cutoff date is 1978 because that's when lead paint was banned in the United States by the Consumer Products Safety Commission.

Peak owns more than 100 units of pre-1978 housing in Portland, including: Menlo Park Apartments, 521-539 N.E. 113th Ave.; St. John Patio Apartments, 7302 N. New York Ave.; Tree Crest Apartments, 16047 E. Burnside St.; and Cambrian Park Apartments, 7531-7629 S.E. Steele St.

The four Peak tenants named in the complaint paid from $475 to $595 in monthly rents. They all have at least two children; one tenant has six children. It's unknown whether any of the kids suffer from lead poisoning; all the families cited in the complaint have since moved out of their apartments.

But tenants interviewed by the Tribune did not express deep concerns about the possible presence of lead paint in their homes, nor were they aware of the EPA's case against their landlord. Al Kyle, who has lived at Menlo Park Apartments since 1995, said of his landlord Peak: 'He's put a lot of money into this place. All of these apartments get new paint every time somebody leaves.'

The second Portland landlord that the EPA is investigating also owns many units of housing built before 1978, Long said. The EPA would not identify the property owner because the investigation is ongoing.