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Towers + lead paint = trouble

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the task of protecting the public from the hazards of lead-based paints. Another arm of the federal government, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), is tasked with making the workplace safer. The two agencies work together to protect workers, the public and the environment. But a new set of regulations is presenting some obstacles for broadcasters.

Nearly all TV stations have towers with multiple layers of old lead-based paint. Coatings of acceptable lead-free paint cover these old layers, but they are still a problem.

The EPA's national regulations do not regulate towers and similar commercial structures with regard to the paint itself. The EPA routes inquiries into this problem to a regional EPA authority rather than a national office. The regional regulations normally apply to residential lead problems such as wall paints, painted furniture, etc. For towers, the regional authority will refer you to your state environmental office.

But there are some basic EPA requirements that seem to exist nearly everywhere. First, you usually don't need to remove the existing paint if it is fully sealed within an acceptable paint. This certainly should be an incentive to keep towers well painted and in good condition. If the paint on the tower is flaking off, the concern is contamination of the ground in the surrounding area. At that point, the paint has to come off the tower. In addition, if work is going to be done on the tower that will disturb the paint in any way, you may have to strip the whole structure. That's when the fun begins.

Lead-paint removal

Stripping must be done in such a way that the chips and or paint dust don't escape. Usually, the surrounding area must be covered with a material that will keep the dust from getting through to the soil. Workers must wear protective clothing and breathing apparatus, and this equipment must be destroyed after the work is completed. OSHA clearly specifies the method of destruction. If the tower is to be sandblasted, a protective sheath must surround it to contain all the dust. You have probably seen this taking place on water towers. It looks like a giant bag that completely covers the structure.

There are some chipping tools that use a vacuum attachment to keep flakes from getting away. Those are usable in some states. That brings back the gist of the whole problem: Individual states have different requirements. Federal regulations govern the disposal of the removed paint chips and dust, including the protective clothing and equipment to be used. But rules on how to do tower work vary.

The one thing that doesn't vary is the extraordinary depth of trouble you will be in if you don't do this whole thing right. If you think that OSHA can get the front office upset, just watch what happens if you cause windblown lead paint flakes to fall over a wide area. Don't argue — just get your resume up to date and think about moving far, far away.

To this same end, don't even think of using good old Charley from down the road to do this work without extensive supervision. It is imperative to use personnel trained in the proper use of protective devices and the disposal of unwanted material. Before you start any work on the tower that could possibly involve the paint, contact your state environmental protection office and review their regulations carefully. There are structural firms and tower painting firms that are familiar with the local requirements and have thorough training. Then, get your ducks properly in order. This should include a contract with the painters, including full hold-harmless agreements and naming the station as a co-insured. Before signing anything or allowing any work to begin, contact the station's insurance carrier and legal counsel. Remember, the corrective actions for soil contamination could involve the removal and destruction of soil over a large area. That involves costs too horrible to mention. We are talking about possible millions of dollars here while the front office yells at you — a lot.

Enough, you say. We need to replace that old tower anyway, so we'll just take it down and put up a nice new one that will be totally lead-free. Nope, it doesn't work that easily. You now have a few tons of contaminated steel. Assuming that you don't want to keep it on site sealed in a big baggie, you may have a great deal of difficulty getting a scrap yard to accept it. It will probably be necessary to go through the whole process of removing and destroying the paint before the tower even becomes acceptable junk.

This isn't a simple situation. Done improperly, the costs of cleanup may well be greater than the value of the station. That thought alone should be enough to remind you to go through every hoop necessary before doing any work on the tower. It doesn't cost anything to go to the appropriate agencies and the station's insurance carrier to make sure that you are doing everything legally, and all bodily openings are suitably protected. The alternatives are truly awesome to consider.

And the whole lead-removal problem isn't going to go away. (If you have any doubts about that, just try to buy lead-based paint.) But it is a problem that station staff can easily deal with by using the appropriate contractors and working with the appropriate state agencies. Failure to do this will be a sure career ender.

Don Markley is president of D.L. Markley and Associates, Peoria, IL.

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