WASHINGTON – Influential lawmakers from New Jersey, Colorado, Illinois and North Carolina joined Oregon’s U.S. Senate delegation this week in calling for federal action to eliminate carcinogenic radon in public housing, following a yearlong investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive.
Rep. David Price, a North Carolina Democrat and chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee on transportation and housing, called the newsroom’s Cancer Cloud investigation “shocking.”
He urged local housing authorities to “take the initiative” to test for radon by tapping into as much as $25 million in recently earmarked funding for health hazards in public housing. The amount is under negotiation with the Senate.
“This story, I hope, will mean that authorities across the country are more sensitive to this,” Price said.
Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, D-Illinois, said the newsroom exposed a problem that is “begging for attention.”
“It has struck a chord with me, to say the least,” said García, who sponsored legislation that passed the House this year mandating carbon monoxide detectors in public housing. García said he is now considering radon legislation for next year.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, told The Oregonian/OregonLive he also plans to press for radon testing in public housing because of the newsroom’s investigation. Menendez said he is doubtful the federal housing department will respond with meaningful action and said he is contemplating legislation to make it happen.
“This administration treats public housing residents less than they would treat any other citizen, in any other form of housing, and that simply is unacceptable,” said Menendez, the ranking member of the Senate’s subcommittee on housing, transportation and community development.
The newsroom’s reporting prompted Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, to plan on seeking money next year that would ensure the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development prioritizes radon testing, his office said. The Denver Housing Authority has done limited radon testing despite identifying problems years ago, as reported in Cancer Cloud.
“The federal government can and must do much more to give our local housing authorities the resources and guidance they need to better protect families and ensure the homes under their watch are safe and healthy,” Bennet, a presidential candidate, said in a statement.
Radon is the latest health hazard in public housing to receive congressional attention. It joins lead paint and carbon monoxide on the list of hidden threats plaguing the nation’s dilapidated stock of roughly 1 million public housing units.
Federal law called for radon protections in public housing in 1988, and HUD began “strongly encouraging” testing in 2013. But The Oregonian/OregonLive’s investigation revealed that many local agencies still do not check apartments for the carcinogen. Others identify but fail to fix radon problems.
Oregon Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley responded earlier this month with a sharply worded letter to HUD, demanding answers about how the agency plans to address the problems that the newsroom identified.
In interviews at their Capitol Hill offices this week, both senators intensified their criticism of HUD and local housing authorities that fail to test.
“This is a question of political will,” Wyden said. “This is a question of priorities. This is a question of whether you’re serious about standing up for public health and being on the side of vulnerable people.”
Merkley called the newsroom’s investigation a “service to the nation” and said he wants HUD to immediately develop a “comprehensive plan” for radon.
But even if HUD complies, he said, legislation still may be needed to hold the agency accountable.
HUD declined this week to make Hunter Kurtz, the assistant secretary in charge of public housing, or Ben Carson, the housing secretary, available for interviews. The agency also declined repeated requests for a response to its findings before the newsroom published them in November.
“I think the fact that The Oregonian can’t even get an interview with the secretary on this topic suggests that they’re not jumping forward to take on the issue,” Merkley said.
Radon seeps into homes from the ground and is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, killing an estimated 21,000 Americans each year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The only way to identify radon is to test for it.
The Oregonian/OregonLive’s investigation revealed that HUD for three decades has failed to protect public housing tenants from the risk of radon exposure. The newsroom surveyed 64 local housing authorities responsible for nearly 125,000 units of public housing, finding that fewer than one in three agencies could produce testing records.
The newsroom and reporters from Advance Local, The Oregonian/OregonLive’s parent company, also conducted independent testing and discovered elevated radon in public housing in Denver, Huntsville, Alabama, and Worcester, Massachusetts.
HUD responded to the investigation hours after publication, with Kurtz, the public housing assistant secretary, sending an email “reminder” to each of the nation’s public housing authorities about the importance of radon testing.
The dispatch scolded housing authorities and implied each had an “obligation” that includes “testing and mitigating exposure to harmful toxins in homes.”
But housing authorities shot back at HUD this month, according to a letter obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive, saying the agency overstated its radon expectations and downplayed its failure to provide adequate funding.
The Council of Large Public Housing Authorities accused HUD of misrepresenting the rules and blasted the agency for never providing additional guidance about radon testing since strongly encouraging it six years ago.
“Rather than taking further action on this issue, HUD has been completely silent on radon testing and mitigation since the 2013 notice,” the group wrote in a letter dated Dec. 3.
The newsroom found that HUD failed to test for radon at any of the 10 public housing authorities it directly controlled between 2013 and 2018.
The federal agency still will not commit to test in the two jurisdictions where it continues to manage day-to-day operations.
“This is like the definition of being irresponsible,” said Wyden, Oregon’s senior senator.
Wyden said he’s considering legislation, if necessary, to get HUD to act. The status quo is unacceptable, he said.
“This really looks like, on the part of HUD, a classic case of buck-passing,” Wyden said. “Buck-passing 101.”
Merkley, meanwhile, checked off a list of what he wants to see from HUD immediately.
The agency should map and quantify the number of units most at risk for radon and develop a cost-effective strategy for testing, he said. HUD also needs to set a timeline for action and revise its budget to start tackling the issue.
“I think it’s worth pursuing legislation even if HUD says it’s going to act,” Merkley said. “Because we have many chapters of public policy where agencies said they were going to act and didn’t.”
“It keeps a spotlight on it,” he added, “that helps move the gears of bureaucracy.”