Demolition permit review shows cracks in lead paint mitigation
Portland developers may kick up some political dust on Thursday when Commissioner Chloe Eudaly's proposal to tighten demolition regulations gets its first public airing.
As reported by the Portland Tribune last week, Eudaly, who oversees the Bureau of Development Services, is poised to introduce legislation aimed at reducing the amount of lead dust that flies off a demolition site when excavators rip into old houses.
Eudaly shared the draft ordinance with developers last week, and her chief of staff, Marshall Runkel, plans to discuss the proposal Thursday at the monthly meeting of the Development Advisory Review Committee, made up of members of the construction industry.
The draft ordinance calls for removing all siding, windows and doors prior to the demolition of older homes in the city to limit the amount of lead particles, found in the paint of older homes, put into the air.
According to numerous studies, ingesting lead (which doesn't degrade) causes cognitive impairment, particularly among children.
One topic likely to surface Thursday is the city's demolition permit application package, specifically a form called the "Certification Regarding Asbestos and Lead-Based Paint."
The certification, introduced in April 2015 when Commissioner Amanda Fritz managed the development bureau, must be signed by the developer or his or her representative "under penalty of perjury."
The form includes a section for asbestos and another for lead-based paint, with boxes to be checked either "yes" or "no" for the presence of each. Should the "yes" box be checked for either, the developer's signature indicates an agreement that that the hazard "will be remediated prior to demolition."
However, a Portland Tribune review of more than 100 demolition permit application packages found some two dozen certifications filled out incompletely or incorrectly.
City law lacks 'teeth'
For instance, in October 2015, Crescent Custom Homes used the form to certify that a property it was seeking to demolish at 3836 S.E. 26th Ave. was free of both lead-based paint and asbestos.
However, 11 days before, Crescent's boss, Calvin Baty, received a written report from a consultant, Alpha Environmental Services Inc., which indicated the presence of both asbestos and lead paint on the property, including lead paint on the exterior window frames and wall siding. The report was included in the BDS application file.
Despite the contradictory statements about the presence of lead and asbestos in the application file, BDS approved Crescent's demolition permit in February 2016, and the property was subsequently demolished.
Crescent also certified that no lead or asbestos was present in four other Portland homes it sought to demolish in 2015 and 2016. All those houses were built between 1904 and 1934, when the use of lead paint was common.
Reached by phone, Baty declined to discuss the matter, as did a second Crescent employee contacted by the Tribune.
Asked about discrepancies on Crescent's certification forms, BDS spokesperson David Austin noted that while state officials can regulate lead paint removal when a house is repainted or repaired, no city currently has the power to enforce lead paint abatement in demolitions. That makes the city's certification form "almost ... moot," Austin said.
However, recent state legislation, in the form of Senate Bill 871, allows local jurisdictions to regulate lead-dust in demolitions. That law will take effect in January, and Austin said the bureau is looking forward to working with the City Council to enact regulations "with teeth."
In other cases, reviewed by the Tribune, developers fail to clearly state whether the houses they plan to demolish have lead paint.
Developer Peter A. Kusyk, President of Firenze Development Inc., has demolished six homes in Portland over the past few years with incomplete or confusing information on the certification.
For example, on the certification form for a demolition at 4015 N.E. 10th Ave., dated Aug. 22, 2016, the boxes for lead paint were left blank. The house and garage have since been demolished. However, neighbors (including this reporter) obtained an environmental consultant's report indicating the presence of extremely high lead-content paint on exterior siding. That consultant, Don Young of Certified Environmental Consulting, LLC sent his report to Mr. Kusyk in October 2016, months prior to the eventual demolition.
Other Firenze demolition applications had problems as well.
For a demolition at 1415 N.E. Failing St., Kusyk signed a certification in June 2016, but gave no indication regarding either asbestos or paint. He wrote, rather, "I have had the site tested and the results are not back from the laboratory."
The house was approved for demolition last spring and a new larger home now stands in in its place. There's no indication in the BDS file of any lab results declaring the property lead and asbestos free. The Tribune has asked BDS whether the property's lab results were ever submitted but had not heard back at press time.
Reached away from his office, Kusyk was unable to access files to offer a response at press time.
In a similar vein, Kusyk submitted four other demolition permit applications in 2015 and 2016 where the boxes to be checked off for the presence of paint and asbestos were left blank or, in one case, unclear.
• 4524 S.E. 41st Ave.: neither box for paint is checked.
• 3957 N.E. Seventh Ave.: neither box for paint is checked.
• 4124 N.E. 13th Ave.: neither box for asbestos is checked.
• 4023 N.E. Seventh Ave.: both boxes are checked for both paint and asbestos. But both paint boxes are also crossed out.
The 'permit runner'
Then there's the case of Kevin Partain, a "permit runner" who owns a company called Urban Visions. For a fee, Partain files the permit applications on behalf of builders. The Tribune has identified eight separate builders who use Partain's services. They range from apparently single-property investors on up to Renaissance Homes, one of the largest builders in the Portland metro area.
On 16 different demolition application packages reviewed by the Tribune, Partain left all four boxes pertaining to the presence of lead and asbestos ("yes" or "no" for each) blank. Instead, he wrote the exact same phrase on the certification: "Hazardous material survey to be completed prior to demo start."
Asked whether those surveys ever happened, Partain said he didn't know.
"That's the builders' and owners' responsibility," he said, adding he sometimes asks developers about the lead and asbestos remediation, "but I don't ask every time. I assume they check it out."
One property Urban Visions handled was at 5903 S.E. Knight St. Mardi Gras Holdings of Gladstone applied for the permit. Dave Rodman of MDR Construction and Development, a Mardi Gras business partner, said that asbestos abatement was done on the property. (Asbestos abatement is actually enforced by Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality.) He said he didn't recall whether there was paint and declined to check company records.
Developers don't see a problem
Renaissance Homes, which demolishes many Portland houses (11 properties out of 14 on the market in Portland in late 2016), is also an Urban Visions client. Founder Randy Sebastian said Renaissance has procedures, as required by state law, for asbestos abatement. But Renaissance did little to no lead paint remediation following Partain's submission of the certification, according to Sebastian.
"People have lead in their pipes at home that give them drinking water," Sebastian said. "Portland schools have problems with lead in their water. All old houses have lead paint. We're building much healthier houses."
As for lead dust dispersed from mechanical demolitions, he said his company sometimes used a garden hose to keep the dust down.
Builder Jeff Fish, who served on the BDS Demolition Subcommittee and helped craft the current certification language, told the Tribune that complaints about lead dust are unfounded. Lead dust, he said, poses far less risk than lead-filled water coming out of pipes common in old houses and public schools.
Besides, Fish said, no lead dust flies off his properties, since lead is heavy.
"There's no reason to suppress the dust," he said. "There's no lead dust in the air. Chips don't float — they fall off. You can spend all kinds of money doing stupid stuff."
Runkel, Eudaly's top aide, said he planned to attend the Thursday meeting with contractors "with my pen and notebook in hand." He's not aiming to hash out all the details, but instead will look for insight from the 17-member Development Review Advisory Committee, which is dominated by contractors.
Runkel said his office intends to use DRAC, a formal body authorized by the City Council, as a sounding board as they "process the proposal" to fruition.
"The worst thing in public policy is when, after it's done, someone comes up and says, 'Why didn't you talk to me?'" Runkel said. "DRAC members are volunteers, not staff. I don't want them to feel we're just checking a box."