Building material dealers from across the nation visited Capitol Hill today to urge Congress to dial back regulations designed to curb exposure to lead-paint dust as well as press bank examiners to increase bank lending to small businesses.

The visits organized by the National Lumber & Building Material Dealers Association (NLBMDA) followed a morning gathering at the group's annual Legislative Conference in which Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., both criticized the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)--the arm of government responsible for the lead-paint rule--for hurting business.

The EPA's Lead Repair, Renovation, and Painting (RRP) rule, which was issued April 22, 2008, and took effect on the same date in 2010, is intended to protect children and pregnant women from lead-based paint, exposure to which can lead to learning disabilities, behavior issues and reduced intelligence. It requires contractors performing renovation, repair and painting projects that disturb lead-based paint in homes, child care facilities, and schools built before 1978 to be certified and follow specific work practices to prevent lead contamination. (See EPA fact sheet.) Ignoring the new rules can lead to fines of up to $37,500 per day.

NLBMDA's criticism of RRP centers on three issues: An opt-out provision that had been slated to be part of the  regulation but was removed on the day it became final, the trustworthiness of lead-paint dust detection kits, and what NLBMDA regards as "misdirected enforcement" of the rule. Those three problems are addressed in S. 2148, legislation introduced by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and co-sponsored by five other Republication senators. NLBMDA's first priority during today's Hill visits was to support the bill, encourage other Senators to co-sign it, and help to get companion legislation introduced in the House of Representatives.

The opt-out provision would have permitted homeowners to voluntarily remove themselves from the effect of the rule if they attest that nobody lives in the house who is younger than 6 years old or is pregnant. But on the day the rule was to take effect, the EPA announced its final rule would close that exemption as of July 6, 2010.  "EPA has eliminated the so-called opt-out provision because improper renovations in older homes can create lead hazards resulting in harmful health effects for residents and visitors in these homes, regardless of age," the agency said then. "The result will better protect children and adult occupants during and after renovation, repair and painting projects."

Dealers focused instead on the fact that, with the opt-in provision, the RRP would have affected 38 million homes, but taking that op-out option means 79 million homes were subject to the rule. (RRP affects only homes built before 1978 because that was the year that the use of lead paint in homes was banned.)

In July 2010, NLBMDA and several other trade groups sued EPA for removing the opt-out rule, arguing that the agency had acted without any new scientific data and before the rule had even taken effect.

Inhofe's bill would restore the opt-out provision. It also addresses complaints by NLBMDA and others over the untrustworthiness of the test kits that EPA requires to be used to check for the presence of lead-paint dust. EPA's own standard is that the test kits deliver false positive readings no more than 10% of the time, and as yet not a single kit on the market does that, NLBMDA says. Inhofe's bill would suspend enforcement of RRP until the kits become available.

As for enforcement, NLBMDA criticized how the EPA was focusing on paperwork violations rather than incorrect worksite practices. Inhofe's bill would give a one-time exemption to certified contractors who are caught making a paperwork error.

The dealers also complainted about RRP last year, but their concerns over access for credit to small businesses is a new talking point for their group's Capitol Hill visits. The recession and related credit crisis has crimped the flow of loans to small businesses since 2008, NLBMDA says, citing Small Business Administration figures. In addition, the Dodd-Frank bank reform bill of two years ago has forced banks to increase their capital-to-asset ratios, thus reducing the amount of money those banks have to lend.

NLBMDA members called on their members of Congress to promote efforts that would encourage banks to open up the lending spigots once more.

Both Hoeven and Walden criticized federal regulations that they said hamper business. "I wish we had an EPA that was helpful ... as opposed to the 'gotcha' approach, writing tough regulations," Walden said. "The best thing you could do for the environment is to have a strong economy. ... It seems the EPA has a disconnect on that."