Grinding It Out

By her count, Belinda Crimmins called 34 different federal, state and city agencies in her attempt to find someone who could stop what she considered a dangerous lead-paint grinding project at the house next door to her Harvard Street home in the Heights ["Abatement by Any Other Name," by Brad Tyer, October 15]. By the time she was finally put in touch with the Environmental Investigation Unit -- a joint project of the Houston Police Department and the city's Neighborhood Protection division -- she had already gone before City Council to plead her case, and, of course, the layers of lead paint that had been ground off the house had been lying in the dirt and dispersing in heavy rains for weeks.

According to the minutes of the October 20 Council session, Mayor Lee Brown said he would ask the city's Public Health Committee to take a look at the issue. That directive resulted, on the day of Crimmins's testimony, in a memo from Department of Health and Human Services Director M. des Vignes-Kendrick to Brown, acknowledging the Press article and suggesting that "this type of situation may require state legislation ...." A subsequent memo from Des Vignes-Kendrick, dated November 5, recommends the "reestablishment of the Lead Task Force to address the issue recently raised at Council regarding a 'loophole' within federal, state and local legislation as it applies to 'abatement' and 'remodelling' of homes."

The minutes also indicate confusion on the part of several councilmembers as to the role of the Health Department's Lead Paint Hazard Program, which operates under a HUD grant to do abatement work. The problem, as revealed in the earlier article, is that the Crimmins neighbor claimed to be doing a simple remodel, and was thus immune from state rules regulating abatement work, which in any case do not contain an enforcement provision. In short, the Lead Paint Hazard Program had no oversight on the Crimmins issue.

According to Officer Stephen Dicker at the Environmental Investigation Unit, his team does. As to why none of 34 city and state agencies, including the city's Health Department and HPD, was able to direct the Crimminses to the proper authorities, Dicker could only speculate as to a lack of knowledge among city employees of the 5-year-old, ten-person unit. Health Department spokesperson Kathy Barton was stumped by the same question. And as Dicker admits, the Crimmins case is only the second time that the unit -- which enforces the criminal code on issues of air, water and land pollution -- has dealt with a lead-paint issue.

Nonetheless, once the Crimminses got in touch, the EIU tested both the Crimmins house and common areas around the periphery of the neighboring house for lead contamination. Once property owner Dale Johnson signed a consent form, they tested the property itself, and found several locations where the lead contamination exceeded the levels that define the presence of hazardous waste.

Consequently, the EIU issued notice to Johnson's attorneys on November 16, giving Johnson the option to begin cleanup and informing him that charges would be filed with the district attorney's office upon completion. According to Officer Dicker, Johnson is at present soliciting bids from environmental cleanup firms. No strict deadline for cleanup work has been set, but Dicker expects the work to proceed this week. Johnson did not return phone calls requesting comment.

If found guilty under state and federal hazardous waste disposal regulations, Johnson could face maximum fines of up to $10,000 and up to five years in prison.

Officer Dicker and the Environmental Investigation Unit may be reached at 654-6104.


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