(Wayne Marshall/Flickr)
(Wayne Marshall/Flickr)

Monday, a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge issued a preliminary ruling(embedded at the end of this post) that requires three companies to pay $1.1 billion to help clean up toxic lead-paint contamination in older homes. Deciding a case first filed 13 years ago, Judge James P. Kleinberg found that Sherman-Williams, NL Industries and ConAgra were each responsible for a public nuisance created through the use of lead paint. Lead is a highly toxic metal that can damage the brain and central nervous system. Lead paint in older homes has long been established as a health threat to young children, a group that’s particularly vulnerable to lead’s toxic effects.

The $1.1 billion will go to the seven California counties — Santa Clara, Alameda, Los Angeles, Monterey, San Mateo, Solano and Ventura — and to three cities: Oakland, San Francisco and San Diego — that brought the original suit. The lion’s share of the fund, $605 million, will go to Los Angeles County, which is believed to have more lead-contaminated homes than anywhere else in the state.

The fund will be administered by the state and is to be used to “remediate” lead paint in more than 50,000 housing units built before 1978. Remediation efforts will include home inspections, enclosing or encapsulating lead-painted surfaces under new paint, plaster or sheetrock, or outright replacement of doors, windows and other building elements.

A spokesperson for the defendants criticized Kleinberg’s decision, as reported by Bloomberg-BusinessWeek:

Bonnie J. Campbell, a spokeswoman for the paint manufacturers, said via e-mail that the decision is “at odds with California law and judicial decisions across the country that have uniformly rejected similar public nuisance claims.” The ruling, she added, penalizes the manufacturers for “the truthful advertising of lawful products, done at a time when government officials routinely specified those products for use in residential buildings,” and “rewards scofflaw landlords who are responsible for the risk to children from poorly maintained lead paint.”

Bloomberg-BusinessWeek also noted that until Kleinberg’s ruling, the paint industry had beaten similar lawsuits in seven other states.

KQED’s Mina Kim talked today to attorney Joseph Cotchett, one of the attorneys who represented the counties and cities that brought the lead-paint suit. He says that Kleinberg’s order could bolster public efforts like California’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. Cotchett said that program “has been effective — yes, it has — but unfortunately like a lot of other state agencies and/or programs, it has been cut back, cut back, cut back, and our position was that the paint companies should come in and help them in inspecting these homes. Of course, I don’t have to tell you what the paint companies said to us.”


Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke is a blogger, reporter and editor for KQED News, responsible for online breaking news coverage of topics ranging from California water issues to the Bay Area's transportation challenges. In a newsroom career that began in Chicago in 1972, Dan has worked as a city and foreign/national editor for The San Francisco Examiner, editor at Wired News, deputy editor at Wired magazine, managing editor at TechTV as well as for several Web startups.

Since joining KQED in 2007, Dan has reported, edited and produced both radio and online features and breaking news pieces. He has shared in two Society of Professional Journalists Norcal Excellence in Journalism awards — for his 2012 reporting on a KQED Science series on water and power in California, and in 2014, for KQED's comprehensive reporting on the south Napa earthquake.

In addition to his 44 years of on-the-job education, Dan is a lifelong student of history and is still pursuing an undergraduate degree.

Email Dan at: dbrekke@kqed.org

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