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You can’t paint over the problem: Arbor Hill groups announce their lawsuit at City Hall press conference. Photo by Joe Putrock.

Get the Lead Out—the Right Way

An Albany neighborhood group sues the city over its lead-paint abatement program

They had bags of fake money, some wore hockey masks, and many held signs that read, “Get the lead out,” “Stop putting children at risk” and “Test the soil.” This was the scene in front of City Hall in Albany yesterday (Wednesday) at a press conference held by The Arbor Hill Concerned Citizens Neighborhood Association.

The group held the conference to announce that it has filed a lawsuit in federal court against the city of Albany for what it claims is the city’s use of unqualified lead-abatement workers in its award-winning lead-abatement program.

“The lawsuit doesn’t ask for a single dollar for personal injury or property damage,” said Aaron Mair, president of AHCCNA. “Our priority is the health and well-being of the families who may be standing in harm’s way, and that is why we are asking the court to order the city to stop violating the law and to ensure that the improperly abated homes are safe for the people living there.”

AHCCNA and other groups allege that the city violated the Toxic Substance Control Act by using unqualified lead contractors and failing to comply with work practice standards set forth by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Natural Resources Defense Council and local attorneys Marc Gerstman and Gary Bowitch represent AHCCNA in the suit.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Gary Stiglmeier, city corporation counsel, said that the city had not yet been served with the lawsuit, so he could not comment on the details of the case. But he did add that his office received a request from the city to obtain outside counsel. So far nobody has been hired. “We have no comment other than that we are completely confident in the lead-paint program that we administered,” said Stiglmeier.

The AHCCNA had given the city 60 days to respond to its intent to sue or reach an out-of-court settlement, but heard nothing in that time from city officials.

Since 1995, the city has received three grants totaling $13 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to conduct lead-paint abatement work in low-income housing projects. The work, however, is subject to EPA regulations, which require all lead contractors, risk assessors and inspectors to be certified and trained according to EPA standards. Workers are required to undergo training and testing to ensure that they are knowledgeable of and skilled in proper removal of lead paint to protect the health and safety of the public.

Exposure to lead is linked to a number of serious health problems, especially in children, such as nervous-system damage, brain injuries, learning disabilities and behavioral problems. Although the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned lead paint in 1978, a number of children living in older homes are still at risk for exposure from chipping or peeling lead paint, or by inhaling excessive amounts of lead-contaminated dust.

Michelle Alvarez, National Resources Defense Council staff attorney, said that since March 2000 it was required that all workers be certified through the EPA. However, many of the city’s lead workers, including the city’s lead inspectors and risk assessors, did not have this certification. And the ones who were certified didn’t receive their credentials until December 2001. As a result, she added, some standards were not followed while workers removed or contained lead-based paint in a number of homes. For example, she said, workers did not take soil samples to test the levels of lead in the ground, nor did they prepare written occupant- protection plans for some of the houses.

Joseph Montana, director of housing and community development for the city of Albany, said he could not comment on the case itself but insisted that Albany’s program is one of the best in the country. “We are rated as one of the best programs that grants have come out through HUD,” said Montana. “We go around to all the lead conferences and speak about our program, so we must be doing something right.”

“The City of Albany claims to have one of the top lead-paint programs in the country,” said Rodney Davis, executive director of the Arbor Hill Environmental Justice Corporation. “However, given the evidence of mismanagement that we’ve seen, we have to wonder, is the Albany program a model or a sham?”

—Nancy Guerin

Access Denied

While critics accuse Bush of playing politics with a U.N. family planning program, the European Union steps up to replace some of the lost U.S. funding

It was a bittersweet victory last week for family planning advocates in the United States and around the world.

Last month, President George W. Bush went forth with his plan to withhold $34 million from the United Nations Population Fund (founded as the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, the organization retains its original acronym, UNFPA). But then the European Union announced that it would give $24 million in extra aid to make up for the funding gap left by the United States.

“Because of the way it is designated, it will not replace the U.S. funds,” said Blue Carreker, director of public affairs and marketing for Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood. “It’s an important gesture, one which underscores the Bush administration’s lack of compassion and lack of commitment to international collaboration, but it still leaves crucial UNFPA programs underfunded and in crisis.”

Carreker explained that although the money from the European Union is greatly needed, there are constraints on how it can be used. One criterion is that the money be spent on programs that serve 22 of the poorest countries that receive UNFPA assistance. The core funding from the United States did not have such restriction, so the money usually was spent on programs that needed it most.

UNFPA offers voluntary family planning, such as pre- and post-natal care, gynecological exams, AIDS testing and education, contraception and general health screening, for women who normally would not receive such medical attention. According to Carreker, the UNFPA provides services in countries where many other service organizations do not go, like Afghanistan, China and Syria.

Many critics are calling Bush’s decision another apparent bow to the Christian right. But according to Bush spokesman Richard Boucher, the decision to withdraw the funding was based on UNFPA’s support for specific Chinese agencies that were thought to be coercing women into having abortions and sterilization procedures.

“Because money is fungible,” Boucher said in a statement on the White House Web site, “we won’t be giving our money to a U.N. program that then gives money to Chinese agencies that then carry out these coercive abortion programs.”

A 1985 law prohibits U.S. aid money from “any organization or program that, as determined by the President of the United States, supports or participates in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization in the People’s Republic of China.”

Lori Hogans, spokeswoman for New York State Right to Life Committee, is pleased with Bush’s decision. “This is something that everyone should agree on,” said Hogans. “The UNFPA has been involved in policies that are pro-coercive and that are certainly anti-choice. The quote-unquote pro-choice movement says they believe in choice, and yet these women are being forced to abort their children or forcefully be sterilized, which is a vile attack on human rights.”

However, according to an article in The New York Times, in May, the Bush administration sent a fact-finding mission to China, which found no evidence that the UNFPA “knowingly supported or participated in programs of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization”—not the first time a fact-finding team has come away without evidence to back up Bush’s claim. But, according to Boucher, since UNFPA worked with Chinese state agencies in some countries where such practices take place, all U.S. funds have been cut.

Many lawmakers were angered by Bush’s decision and called it a slap in the face to the bipartisan position Congress took in support of UNFPA. Lawmakers vowed to overturn the administration’s decision in next year’s spending bill, which will be written this summer.

Boucher added that U.S. funds for family planning and reproductive health will be spent through United States Agency for International Development programs and not through UNFPA. But Carreker charged that U.S. groups simply don’t go to the same places that UNFPA goes. Therefore, she added, many women will be left without crucial care. “It’s out the window for good that the Bush administration has any concern for women in Afghanistan or anywhere else,” said Carreker. “He has cut off access to the most important health-care screening services and reproductive health-care needs for women who are most at risk.”

—Nancy Guerin

The Other Green Party

Thomas K. Leighton has no illusions about winning his campaign for governor of New York, but he has a vision.

“The goal of this campaign is to get 50,000 votes,” said Leighton, New York’s Marijuana Reform Party gubernatorial candidate, “get the one percent [of the vote], and create a vehicle to bring the issues to the governorship.”

Leighton and the MRP are in the midst of collecting the 15,000 signatures necessary to file a petition of public support that would grant him an official line on New York’s 2002 gubernatorial ballot. The group would need 50,000 votes on Election Day to become an official political party and receive automatic ballot status in 2006.

According to Leighton, having New York join the nine states that have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes is the main goal of his gubernatorial campaign.

“People are suffering and people are in pain, and medicinal marijuana can relieve their pain,” Leighton said. “The more it is researched, the more using marijuana for medical purposes is shown to be helpful. Physicians, not politicians, should be practicing medicine.”

On March 17, 1999, the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine concluded that “there are some limited circumstances in which we recommend smoking marijuana for medical uses,” including relief of chronic pain, nausea, muscle spasms and eye problems, and to stimulate appetite.

Leighton said that unlike the lip service paid to drug-law reform by incumbent Gov. George Pataki, the MRP’s top priority would be a total repeal of the state’s often-criticized Rockefeller drug laws—a reform, he said, that is overdue.

“Pataki has spoken about repealing the laws for eight years, and that’s great, but it’s time for action,” Leighton said. “Neither the Senate or Assembly are committed to complete reforms, both are tinkering with what is already there, and our feeling is that they should be repealed outright.”

Leighton is hopeful about this year’s campaign, but knows that his long-term goals of legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes and pushing for legislation allowing farmers to cultivate hemp, a related plant that can be utilized to make textiles, paper, paints and clothing, will depend on whether MRP candidates can eventually be elected to office in New York.

“This is a war on drugs, and we have to be available to the people,” Leighton said. “We are the only organization in the state offering the voters a chance to influence legislators on this issue, and if we get the 50,000 votes, if we create this party, for the next four years these issues will be before the voters.”

—Travis Durfee

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