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A local agency that’s completed hundreds of lead paint remediation projects across San Diego has halted two jobs and launched an internal inquiry as it acknowledges that it may have improperly dumped lead waste for the last decade.

Since the San Diego Housing Commission began eliminating lead hazards from area homes with young children 10 years ago, its federally funded contractors have wrapped the resulting debris in two layers of plastic and sent it to the Miramar Landfill, said Dan Turpin, the commission’s construction services director.

But some waste may have been so polluted with lead that it would’ve been legally deemed hazardous. State law would’ve required it to go to a hazardous waste landfill, with stricter rules for managing garbage than the city-owned Miramar Landfill.

When contractors scrape old paint or remove windows and boards in a remediation project, they’re required to determine whether the resulting waste is so contaminated with lead that it’s defined as hazardous. The commission doesn’t know whether the waste from its more than 700 projects was hazardous or not — and it should.

“There’s no documentation that exists that says anything but that it was treated as household waste,” Turpin said.

The commission’s lead removal program gives maximum $10,000 grants to property owners to remove and eliminate lead hazards in low-income homes built before 1979. High lead levels are found each year in dozens of San Diego children, who are especially susceptible to lead poisoning. If ingested, lead can permanently damage a child’s brain and nervous system.

It’s possible none of the projects’ debris was hazardous and could’ve gone to the Miramar Landfill anyway. But it’s more likely some hazardous lead waste went to the landfill that shouldn’t have. The Los Angeles Housing Department, which does similar remediation projects, estimates about 30 percent of the resulting waste is deemed hazardous.

State law gives two ways to determine whether waste is hazardous: You can use a $300 to $400 test that says how much lead is present in a sample. State law also allows the person producing the waste to rely on their own knowledge about what’s in it. But public agencies like Los Angeles sometimes do the testing themselves in-house to ensure contractors are sending their debris to the right place. The local Housing Commission has not.

“This has become the highest priority for our rehab department,” Turpin said. “We’re taking this very, very seriously.”

The commission may have saved thousands of dollars if it routinely sent heavily contaminated waste to the city-owned Miramar Landfill, where dumping is cheaper than at hazardous waste facilities. But it could also face state fines up to $25,000 per violation per day if it violated dumping laws.

Alan Johanns, a city environmental official, learned of the practice and alerted the commission March 23. He said the agency had not known about the requirement previously.

Johanns said any hazardous lead that may have gone to Miramar does not pose a health threat and would represent a small fraction of the landfill’s overall waste stream. California’s dumping regulations are stricter than many other states, which allow household debris contaminated with lead to go to municipal landfills.

“Once it gets to the landfill, the risk to you or I or a child is very minimal,” said Johanns, the city’s asbestos and lead program manager.

The risk of putting hazardous wastes in municipal landfills comes from the chance that they’ll leach out into the surrounding environment. Hazardous waste landfills have extra lining and store material in sealed drums. They accept carcinogens like asbestos and PCBs, which can’t be dumped at municipal landfills.

But on their own in municipal landfills, lead and other heavy metals tend to stay put, said Jeremy O’Brien, applied research director for the Solid Waste Association of North America, even as they decompose.

“Landfills are a fairly safe place to dispose of this type of waste,” O’Brien said.

Since learning its procedures are flawed, the commission has required contractors to provide documentation detailing how they’re disposing waste from their projects. Four lead removal projects currently underway have now been required to send debris to out-of-state hazardous waste landfills in Utah and Arizona.

That’s a temporary step — one Turpin said the commission is doing to be cautious — and one that may be costly overkill. Waste from two homes recently cost the commission nearly $5,000 to test and dispose. Dumping a ton of construction debris at Miramar costs about $100. And it’s having the opposite effect of the commission’s earlier action: Instead of potentially filling up a municipal landfill with hazardous waste, it’s potentially taking up limited space in hazardous waste landfills with household garbage.

It’s unclear exactly who’s to blame for the decade-long dumping problem. The commission points to its certified contractors, which are required to follow applicable local, state and federal laws. But the commission’s staff also has a role in specifying what work gets done in each rehab project and ensuring laws are followed.

It’s not yet known how the commission will change its procedures going forward. Turpin, who took his job in April, said he’d scheduled a meeting late this week with Johanns to discuss the issue. That meeting will occur more than two months after Johanns first raised questions.

“We obviously want to do the right thing with the program,” Turpin said. “We also don’t want to spend money on things we don’t have to. We need to know what the requirement is for proper disposal, because there is a cost associated with it.”

City Councilwoman Donna Frye said she wanted to know how much waste was disposed, “what the problem was as to why these basic laws were not being followed and how loads of hazardous waste continued on to be disposed at Miramar.

“We’re going to have to get a full report out and have people explain what has happened,” she said.

Please contact Rob Davis directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/robwdavis.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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