Flint lead crisis triggers federal funds for abatement across Michigan

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Residents in older houses are exposed to lead dust from paint while opening and closing windows.

Residents in older houses are exposed to lead dust from paint while opening and closing windows.

By Alexander Smith

LANSING — Some federal funds triggered by Flint’s water crisis can be used to remove lead from old homes statewide, but a shortage of contractors certified to do the work is an obstacle to getting the job done.

“Money’s coming into the state triggered by Flint, but it’ll be used all around the state,” said Mary Sue Schottenfelds, executive director of CLEARCorps Detroit, a nonprofit organization that runs the Lead Safe Homes Program for city residents. “We are in desperate need of lead contractors who are certified and interested in state projects.”

To create more specialists, the state will use $20,000 of federal money to cover training and licensing costs for those looking to get certified in lead removal, said Jennifer Eisner, the public information officer for Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services.

“Now there’s more of a push to get people certified because there’s going to be a lot of abatement work coming,” said Jay Wagar, senior certification officer of the state’s Healthy Homes Section.

Earlier this year, Lansing was awarded $2.3 million in federal funds for lead abatement and Grand Rapids received $2.9 million. Both grants came from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The trained contractors won’t be limited to Flint, where lead contamination of drinking water brought international attention.  Even though the application for state funding requires contractors to bid on projects in Flint, it would increase the number of qualified contractors throughout the state, according to Tina Reynolds, health policy director of the Michigan Environmental Council.  

“It’s a win-win,” Reynolds said. “Flint wins, and the contractors, if they are based in another municipality or county, will have those skills and can transfer them there.”

But getting them trained  is a challenge. Among the hurdles is the improving economy.

From a high of 404 in 2011, the number of state-approved contractors specializing in lead paint removal has dropped to 254 in 2016, according to Eisner.

Most contractors aren’t willing to deal with lead, said Paul Haan, executive director of the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan, which helps families apply for Grand Rapids’ lead hazard control program.

“The challenge is these projects require a high level of capacity and aptitude, and expectations are high because we’re protecting public health,” Haan said. “Finding contractors who are qualified can be challenging in its own right.”

Contractors don’t have much incentive for going into lead abatement, said Robert Filka, chief executive officer of the Michigan Home Builders Association. The improving economy means they make more money building new houses than working on old ones.

“If you’re a plumber and your choices are to work in a newly constructed home or building, and you don’t have to crawl under crawl spaces or break up walls, that work is a whole lot easier and the return is far greater,” Filka said.

Covering the training and licensing costs is a step in the right direction, Filka said.

“My fear has always been that people with the training get undercut by those who don’t,” Filka said. “Anything that sheds light on the need to get that additional training is incredibly important.”

If there’s one job you don’t want an unlicensed contractor for, it’s lead abatement.

“They have to make sure they’re setting up containment, using safe work practices to control lead dust and cleaning up afterward,” Haan said “There’s no skirting that, it’s part of the work.”

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