Don’t be fooled by lead paint companies trying to duck responsibility

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Ed Howard, San Francisco Chronicle

Shhhhh! Listen carefully. You hear a rumbling sound? No, thankfully, that’s not the dreaded Big One. It is the sound of the progressives, who enacted the initiative process as a check on corporate greed, rolling in their graves.

Why so restless? Because a statewide initiative is being circulated by three giant companies that is disguised as charity but underneath is pure grinning greed. It is maybe the most cynically deceptive initiative in our state’s history.

Here’s the story. Corporate conglomerate Conagra Brands (owner of Marie Callender’s, Reddi-wip, and Orville Redenbacher’s, and many more), Dutch Boy paint company Sherwin-Williams and NL (short for National Lead) Industries were found by a state appellate court last year to have for decades “knowingly promot(ed) lead paint for interior residential use,” even though the corporations knew lead exposure was dangerous, especially to children.

According to the court, the predecessor of Conagra “knew of the danger that such use would create for children at that time.”

Sherwin-Williams “had the requisite knowledge … of the public health hazard … but it nevertheless continued to promote lead paint for interior residential use.”

And NL Products “affirmatively promoted lead paint for interior residential use with the requisite knowledge.”

Pause for a moment to consider how awful this is. The companies did this, the court said, knowing the risk to our children. And, the court said, they did it for years and years.

After making these morally horrific findings, the court told these companies: You made this mess, you have to clean it up by creating a company-funded pot of money that homeowners can use to pay for fixes. The total the companies have to pay is is estimated at $700 million. About half of California could benefit from the decision.

Now, these same companies have the chutzpah to be pushing an initiative initially called the Healthy Homes and Schools Act. The initiative has a fine-print provision that would overturn the courts’ rulings, make it impossible for homeowners or anyone else to sue them again on the same grounds, and for good measure impairs the Legislature’s power to pass laws that might aid homeowners and victims to get similar relief.

But, wait. There is more. Hold on to your wallets, taxpayers, because, while the initiative wipes out the companies’ court-ordered liability, the initiative would also force taxpayers — including the parents of child victims! — to pay to clean up the companies’ own lead paint mess, draining an estimated $4 billion from future state budget priorities, including schools and health care for kids.

Somehow, it gets worse. These corporations are selling this initiative by lying to the very homeowners who will benefit from it. They want to scare their own victims into supporting their cause.

They are falsely saying that the court declared every home with lead paint in it to be a red-tagged nuisance. How do we know this is false? Because the same line was tried on the appellate judges and the court rejected it, saying simply: “Not so. The trial court ordered (paint company) defendants to abate the public nuisance they had created, but it did not identify any specific properties.”

As the companies know, when a court dubs something a nuisance that is already infamously bad — like lead in your home — the court didn’t create the nuisance. The court is just saying who has to pay to fix it. As the appellate court correctly noted, any property built before 1978 is presumed to contain lead paint.

And the court rightly observed that under its order to have these three corporations pay for clean-up, “(p)roperty owners can only gain from enrollment in the (lead paint remediation) plan; they have nothing to lose.”

Bay Area Assembly members David Chiu, Rob Bonta, Mark Stone and Bill Quirk are part of a crusading group of Sacramento lawmakers who have introduced bills to aid victims. Some ensure that victims not covered by the case don’t have to litigate the same issues already decided. Another seeks to impose a fee on paint companies to create a fund that helps homeowners without letting those who knowingly created the mess to skip cheerfully away, paying nobody but their lawyers and political consultants. Still another permits more inspectors.

Voters should demand that every Sacramento lawmaker pass the lead paint legislative package of bills: AB2073 (Chiu), AB2934 (Stone), AB2074 (Bonta), AB2995 (Carrillo), AB3009 (Quirk), and AB 2803 (Limón).

But also remember the names Conagra, Sherwin-Williams and NL. These are the companies behind the mask of the Healthy Homes and Schools Act and they were the ones who, according to our courts, knowingly made millions of homes not just unhealthy, but dangerous to our children.