Monday, March 10, 2014
By KELLEY BOUCHARD Staff Writer
Maine legislators will consider repealing and replacing a nearly four-year-old law that required radon gas testing and mitigation in rental housing but has yet to be enforced.
Sen. Rodney Whittemore, R-Skowhegan, has submitted a less stringent bill that would eliminate mandatory testing for the radioactive gas in rentals. It would require landlords to notify current and prospective tenants only if they know a rental property has a radon hazard that hasn't been mitigated.
Leaders of landlord groups across Maine support LD 328. Meeting the mandates of the existing law is too expensive, they say, costing as much as $150 to test and $3,000 to mitigate some buildings.
They also say the law is unfair because the state doesn't require radon testing for owner-occupied, single-family homes.
"Why require radon testing for landlords and not for single-family homeowners?" asked Carleton Winslow, a Portand landlord who is vice president of the 1,000-member Maine Apartment Owners and Managers Association.
"Most tenants stay a year or two and move on," Winslow said, while single-family homeowners usually stay longer, increasing their potential for exposure to dangerous levels of radon.
Radon gas is the second-leading cause of lung cancer after smoking, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
High levels of radon occur naturally in Maine's granite-rich ground, often seeping through foundations and concentrating inside homes.
The rental-testing law, passed in early 2009, required landlords to test for radon and, if high levels were found, have the problem professionally mitigated within six months. The law initially called for all rentals to be tested by 2012, but the Legislature decided in 2011 to push the effective date to March 1, 2014, with re-testing required every 10 years.
The law was proposed by former Rep. Jim Martin, D-Orono, a landlord who was concerned for the health of about one-third of Mainers who live in rental housing. It won unanimous support from the Legislature's Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, which has yet to schedule a hearing on Whittemore's bill.
Whittemore noted that Maine's law, while not yet enforced, was considered the toughest in the nation.
The replacement bill. LD 328, is modeled after an Illinois law. It doesn't stipulate how a landlord might learn that a rental property has a radon hazard and doesn't require mitigation. A landlord would have to notify tenants only if the problem wasn't addressed so they could decide whether to continue living there.
Currently in Maine, radon testing is often done during real estate sales as part of home inspections. While not required, state law stipulates that radon testing during home sales must be done by trained contractors who are registered with the Division of Environmental Health, part of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
While testing by a registered contractor can cost as much as $150, homeowners or occupants testing for their own purposes can buy a kit from a state-registered lab for about $60, according to the division's website.
Mitigation, which involves venting foundations to keep radon from entering homes, can be done by property owners or occupants, but the state recommends using registered contractors for both testing and mitigation. If a radon-reducing system includes electrical or plumbing work, it must be done by a licensed electrician or plumber.
Mitigation systems cost $1,500 to $3,000, according to the division's website.
Tom Varney, registered radon contractor in Windham, said he typically charges $150 to test as many as two units and $1,000 to install a mitigation system.
After the rental-testing was enacted in 2009, Varney said, he experienced a spike in landlords getting their properties tested, but rental contracts have dropped off since the Legislature moved the deadline to 2014.
"Ninety percent of my work is related to home sales," Varney said.
Rep. Adam Goode, D-Bangor, a sponsor of the original rental-testing legislation, said Whittemore's bill presents an opportunity to review Maine's radon policy for overall effectiveness, particularly if the current law isn't being enforced. He disputed the idea that radon has a lesser impact on tenants than homeowners.
"Some tenants live in apartments for long periods," Goode said. "We need to have a conversation about our efforts to mitigate the impact of radon in Maine homes, especially on children."
Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: