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Release Date: 01/11/1999
Contact Information: Peyton Fleming, EPA Press Office (617-918-1008)

BOSTON - Children will be safer at dozens of day-care facilities across Rhode Island as a result of a nearly half-million-dollar lead abatement initiative launched today by the State of Rhode Island and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's New England Office. The initiative was made possible through an enforcement case brought by the EPA against the R.I. Department of Transportation.

The lead-abatement project was initiated in response to severe lead poisoning among Rhode Island's children. Although rates of childhood lead poisoning declined from 22 percent of children screened in 1994 to just over 12 percent in 1997, Rhode Island's rates are still three times greater than the national average. The problem is especially critical in cities like Providence, Central Falls and Newport, where more than 25 percent of kindergarten-aged children tested by the R.I. Department of Health had lead poisoning.

The project, which will be implemented over the next 18 months, is being funded by the RI-DOT as part of an enforcement settlement initiated by EPA last spring for widespread environmental violations at a DOT facility in downtown Providence.

The settlement, part of a 19-page consent agreement, stems from numerous environmental violations that EPA inspectors discovered in 1997 at the DOT complex at 90 Calverley St., including improper storage and handling of large amounts of hazardous waste. Investigators also discovered violations of the Clean Water Act, including the failure to take spill-prevention measures and the illegal discharge of oil into the Woonasquatucket River.

DOT also has agreed under the settlement to pay a $100,000 civil penalty and to spend $15,000 to fund two one-day environmental compliance training sessions for Rhode Island's municipalities.

"We've turned environmental mismanagement into better protection for kids," said John P. DeVillars, administrator of the EPA's New England Office. "Rather than hitting Rhode Island with a huge fine that will disappear into the U.S. Treasury, EPA and DOT are channeling our efforts towards a positive project that will produce dramatic public health benefits for hundreds of Rhode Island children. Lead poisoning continues to be a major health problem for children in Rhode Island - especially in Providence and other urban areas - and this project, along with others, will go a long way towards addressing this problem."

"Lead abatement is a top priority in Providence, where we are working aggressively toward lead prevention as a major initiative geared toward protecting our children," added Providence Mayor Vincent Cianci. "This announcement is particularly important to our youngest residents who utilize day-care facilities in Providence on a daily basis. Improving conditions for them helps us take a major step forward, and I am pleased to support this very worthy project."

Lead poisoning is a serious disease caused by the ingestion of lead paint chips and dust. Children under the age of six are especially sensitive to small amounts of lead. Lead poisoning can harm a child's developing brain and may result in problems with learning, behavior and coordination.

One of several lead-abatement projects EPA has initiated in Rhode Island, the settlement requires that DOT invest $438,500 to remove lead-contaminated paint and soils from licensed day-care facilities all across the state.

The project, which will be administered by the R.I. Housing and Mortgage Finance Corp., will provide matching funds for facilities identified as posing a health risk based on a recent survey by the state Health Department.

Completed last month, the Health Department surveyed about 220 licensed day-care facilities, of which roughly half are considered to be lead safe. Just over 100 of the facilities - including 27 in Providence alone - had some sort of lead contamination problem such as elevated lead levels in the soil or peeling or chipping lead paint inside or outside the buildings.

"The R.I. Department of Health commends the state's day-care facilities for their efforts to protect the health of our children. More than 100 facilities now have lead-safe certificates," said Dr. Patricia Nolan, director of the state Health Department. "This financing program will assure that licensed day-care facilities serving young children can take the long-term corrective action necessary to get their lead-safe certificates, as well."

Governor Lincoln Almond recently announced that the state would be contributing $180,000 towards the day-care initiative, bringing the state's total investment in the project to $618,500.

The day-care initiative is among several lead poisoning prevention initiatives EPA-New England has helped launch in recent months. Among those efforts is a lead soil sampling program in Providence, in which EPA staff collected soil samples from nearly 40 vacant lots that are being targeted for sale under the Providence Redevelopment Agency's Special Vacant Lot Program. The samples were collected last fall and the results will be released by the end of the month. The results will be made available to residents that are interested in purchasing one of the special vacant lots for a cost of $1.

The EPA's Urban Environmental Initiative Program has also awarded a total of $40,000 for a Lead Poisoning Prevention Parent Empowerment Project in Providence and to help the City of Providence implement a recently-completed lead task force report on how to better protect children from lead poisoning.

With the exception of the final closure of an unpermitted hazardous waste storage area, all of the violations cited in the enforcement case last spring against DOT have been corrected.

"DOT and the State have been very responsive in correcting the problems that we identified," DeVillars said. "We're also pleased at the state's willingness to participate in this lead abatement initiative."

Under the leadership of Governor Almond, the state has established a "Lead Free Rhode Island" initiative, which includes the creation of community lead centers and a Lead Institute, increased funding for lead abatement and enforcement programs, plus improved legislation aimed at re-addressing the 1991 Lead Prevention Act. The goal is to protect lead-poisoned children and provide incentives to homeowners to address lead hazards.