Thousands of Minnesota contractors will miss a deadline this week for becoming certified in techniques that minimize the amount of lead dust generated during projects.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires an eight-hour training course for anyone working in homes or other buildings constructed before 1978, the year people stopped using paint containing the neurotoxin.
The deadline for getting trained is Thursday, but contractors and training program instructors say only a fraction of Minnesota contractors will be certified by then.
The EPA plans to enforce the rules by acting on complaints and tips from property owners and contractors who are following the rules, and those who don't comply could face hefty fines. But it's also likely that with so few certified contractors, Minnesotans having work done on their older homes could continue to be put at risk, especially if they have children.
The cost of the training plus the increased cost to complete jobs under the new lead rules are one reason some contractors have put off getting certified.
Under the rules, workers must set up containment areas for lead dust and in some cases use tools equipped with vacuums. They must also use a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) vacuum for clean up and properly dispose of plastic tarps or any other materials that could be contaminated with lead. The contractors must also pay a fee for the training and certification.
"I think it's a classic case of waiting until the end to achieve your compliance," said Dan Hannan, safety director for the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota.
The EPA estimates the requirements will increase the cost of each job by $8 to $167. It's clear some contractors will ignore the rules, and that means property owners who choose the lowest estimate for a job might be choosing a contractor who isn't certified. That's a concern for contractors who are following the rules, Hannan said.
"They feel like they're being penalized by doing the right thing," he said.
But EPA officials say they will enforce the new rules. If contractors are found to be working in older homes and buildings without the certification, EPA could fine them up to $32,500 per day and per incident.
Still, just as with other regulations, it might take years for some contractors to complete the training, said Greg Myers, the owner and primary instructor at Midwest Environmental Consulting.
"People will avoid the rules if they don't think they're going to get caught," Myers said.
Awareness is also an issue. Besides general contractors, painters, plumbers, electricians and anyone else whose work might disturb lead-based paint in a home or other building must go through the training and abide by the rules. They apply to large construction companies as well as one-person operations.
Some of the practices taught as part of the EPA lead certification have been required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration since 1993, yet some people are just learning those practices, Myers said.
"Regretfully, for most of our rules and regulations, they don't find out about them for months and sometimes years later," Myers said.
The EPA said it expects more than 150,000 contractors nationwide will be trained by the deadline, a fraction of the total number of contractors.
Dale Kemery, an EPA spokesman, acknowledged that people have raised concerns about the availability of the training and have claimed they didn't become aware of the requirements until recently.
But Kemery defended the EPA's efforts, saying the agency has worked hard to raise awareness while also certifying as many training programs as possible.
"We've been letting people know about this in all kinds of ways for the last couple of years," he said, adding that the rules were explained in advertisements in trade publications. Notices were also sent to more than 1,000 trade organizations, magazines, unions and property management organizations, he said.
Despite EPA's efforts, the three agencies that provide the training programs in Minnesota estimate that fewer than 5,000 contractors in the state have been certified so far. That compares to about 15,000 licensed general contractors in Minnesota, plus all the other workers who aren't licensed whose work is also covered by the new rules. The Minnesota Department of Health estimates that number could be as high as 60,000.
"It's a huge number," said Linda Rohde, director of the UND Environmental Training Institute. "I don't think the whole thing was thought out real thoroughly on the impact to the industry, but amazingly people are coming into compliance."
Some say another issue is the limited availability of training programs. The three agencies that provide the certification training in Minnesota have been busy since the requirement was announced two years ago.
"Our programs have been filling up from the start," said Mike Esaw, president and one of the training managers at M & J Environmental Institute, which offers the lead training program. "It's rush hour now."
Esaw said about 900 people have been through his program. The two other firms offering training in Minnesota -- Midwest Environmental Consulting based in Cambridge and the University of North Dakota's Environmental Training Institute -- each said just under 2,000 people have been through their programs.
EPA officials said more than 5,600 courses have been offered, and they said they expect many contractors will continue enrolling in classes after Thursday's deadline.
Even with the deadline and threat of fines, there will likely be contractors and other workers who choose not to follow the lead rules.
Minnesota property owners wanting to hire contractors who have been through the training can ask for their lead-safe certified seal number. Within the next few months, the Minnesota Department of Health plans to have a page on its website listing all the Minnesota firms that have complied with the new rules.
In addition, the Ad Council will be running TV and radio ads aimed at educating consumers about the dangers of lead.
Daniel Locher, supervisor of asbestos and lead compliance at the Minnesota Department of Health, said the awareness campaign might lead more Minnesotans to inquire about lead-safe practices when hiring someone to work on their homes.
"This is one thing I think is very important the consumers are aware, even before they do their own work," Locher said, adding that about half of renovation work is done by do-it-yourselfers. "They could be putting their kids at risk."
Locher said a tiny amount of lead can do real damage to a developing brain. For example, if lead granules in something the size of a sugar packet were spread across the floor of a home, one square foot might be contaminated enough to poison a child, he said.
"That's just a few granules," Locher said. "It's the most powerful neurotoxin."