Nathaniel French talks in July about problems with windows that were replaced at his family’s home in Augusta as part of a lead abatement project through Penquis Community Action Program. The poor quality of the work has raised concerns about the oversight of a Maine program meant to protect children from lead poisoning. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — When Kaylee and Nathaniel French’s 3-year-old daughter tested positive for lead poisoning, the couple turned to a state- and federally funded program for help removing lead paint from their Augusta home.

A casement window that is too small to enable exits in emergencies at the French family’s home in Augusta. The window, which was installed as part of a botched lead paint abatement project, violates Augusta’s life and safety codes. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Now, more than a year after paying $16,000 to eliminate the hazard, the couple says the lead levels in their house are worse than ever, their home remains damaged by shoddy work and another child of theirs has higher-than-acceptable levels of the toxin in his blood.

The city’s director of code enforcement said he is concerned that the “extremely poor quality” work done on the Frenches’ house was inspected and approved multiple times by the agency overseeing the abatement program in central and northern Maine.

And he’s worried similarly shoddy work may have taken place on the homes of other families, potentially putting them at risk of exposure to lead paint that was not properly addressed.

No level of lead in a person’s blood is safe, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even at low levels, the toxin can cause learning disabilities and behavioral problems that last a lifetime.

Every year, hundreds of children in Maine are poisoned by lead, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. Most lead poisonings in the state are caused by exposure to dust from old lead paint — typically in buildings constructed before lead-based paints were banned in 1978. That means more than half of Maine homes may have lead paint.

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Kids less than 6 years old are most at risk.

After their daughter’s blood lead level results came back in 2022, the Frenches said having the toxic paint removed or encased at their Patterson Street home didn’t feel like a choice, but a necessity. They wanted the house to be safe for their daughter, Zadaya, who is now 4, and her older brothers, Ashton, 8, and Treyden, 14.

So they sought help paying for the costly work, which totaled $38,000. Penquis Community Action Program, which administers the state’s lead abatement program in parts of Maine, covered half the price.

MaineHousing has received state and federal grant funds to oversee lead abatement in Maine since 1998, and the housing authority contracts with four different community action agencies, including Penquis, to administer the programs locally.

From 2020-23, it funded 178 projects, involving 518 homes or rental units, which cost the program about $3.9 million. MaineHousing also leveraged about $1.2 million in nongrant funds for lead abatement work in that time, according to Scott Thistle, communications director for MaineHousing.

But Kaylee French said getting funding through Penquis meant they did not have a choice in what contractor would do the job — they had to go with A&L Home Solutions, a Winthrop-based contractor recommended by Penquis and one of only two contractors to bid on the work.

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Unfilled screw holes from previous storm windows are seen Friday under a replacement window at the French family’s home in Augusta. The city’s director of code enforcement, Rob Overton, says this is one example of the unacceptable work done on the home through a state and federally funded lead paint abatement program. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Thistle, while declining to comment on the Frenches’ specific case, said the community action programs prepare a bid package to select contractors to complete such jobs. Following state and federal lead program guidelines, if a property owner wants a contractor other than the low bidder to do the work, the homeowner must pay the difference between the lowest bid and the one they select.

‘IT IS STILL NOT SAFE FOR MY KIDS’

The Frenches moved out of their home for a month while A&L Home Solutions got to work.

They were stunned when they returned.

The couple said the contracting company’s owner, Steve Mihalakis, not only did not follow the proper, manufacturer-recommended instructions for encapsulating lead paint in their home, but also failed to remove rotten wood around windows he replaced. He installed cheap windows so improperly that some of them are already cracked and broken and allow water into their home, they said. A&L Home Solutions also damaged existing window openings, didn’t get a required permit and has refused to get a permit and come back and repair the shoddy work, the couple said.

Since then, 8-year-old Ashton has also tested positive for unsafe levels of lead in his blood, and the Frenches plan to have him and Zadaya evaluated soon to see if the exposure has impacted their growth and ability to learn. The family has been living in the Augusta home since 2018.

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“That’s the biggest thing — after paying all that money, after being out of the house, it is still not safe for my kids,” Kaylee French said. “The lead paint is still all over the house, so my kids are still not safe. (The contractor) didn’t do the abatement properly — he destroyed window skirting, he put windows in over rotting wood. Every single thing he touched has to be redone.”

After trying for months but failing to get Penquis or the contractor to help them, the Frenches have gotten a lawyer they hope can convince Mihalakis to make things right and pay for another contractor to come in and finally abate the lead from their home.

In the meantime, they’re living out of boxes in anticipation of having to temporarily move out again and vacuuming daily to try to contain the remaining lead paint.

CITY GETS NO ANSWERS

Robert Overton, Augusta’s director of code enforcement, said a codes officer inspected the work done on the Frenches’ home after the couple contacted the city looking for help.

“Given the extremely poor quality of this project, the fact building permits were not obtained for the window replacements — a common part of a lead abatement project — and that it had been approved at least twice by Penquis, I have concerns about any other homes where similar projects may have occurred and were approved by Penquis,” Overton wrote in a memo to Augusta City Manager Susan Robertson last year.

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Augusta Director of Code Enforcement Robert Overton has expressed concern with the oversight of a state and federally funded program meant to help families eliminate toxic lead paint from their homes. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

He said he asked Penquis officials in June 2023 for a list of other homes with which they had been involved, but never got a response. He said he feels strongly that the public should be made aware of the matter so any affected homeowners can contact local authorities “so that the work can be further reviewed to ensure the families’ safety.”

The lines around the door knob frame at the French family’s house in Augusta show the edge of removed paint that was not sanded smooth before repainting. The city’s director of code enforcement, Rob Overton, says this is an example of the unacceptable work done on the home through a state and federally funded lead paint abatement program. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

In January, he said he still had not gotten any response.

But state officials have acknowledged to him, privately, that they recognize some projects done through the lead abatement program have generally had problems with being expensive work of poor quality.

“It’s frustrating, I’ve not seen anything, and there has been no positive movement here that would help this family,” he said recently.

Overton said the windows put into the Frenches’ home were improperly installed, many were not functioning properly or broke and cracked shortly after they were installed, and were not flashed or caulked correctly, allowing air and water into the home.

A Penquis project coordinator, David Orcutt, visited the home with Overton in June of last year, and while there, Orcutt initially told Kaylee French the work was satisfactory and the issues she was seeing were normal and acceptable.

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Orcutt later told Overton he would not have approved of it in his own home, and it should not have been approved, after Overton shared his assessment.

“I explained that the paint job was sloppy at best as there were numerous areas of chipping paint, blistering, paint runs and paint brush marks on wall and floor surfaces adjacent to the painted area,” Overton said.

“It was obvious that loose and chipping paint had been painted over. I also pointed out the numerous issues with the window installation that (another city code officer) had observed earlier and that in one bedroom an egress-compliant window was removed and a noncompliant window was installed, creating a Life Safety Code violation.”

Nathaniel French said Mihalakis removed smaller windows and replaced them with a larger window that didn’t open and could not be used in an emergency, he said, referring to the code violation.

“If he’d pulled a permit (for the work), he would have known it’s not an egress window,” said Nathaniel French, who is an Army veteran.

He said representatives of the manufacturer of the paint used to encapsulate the lead paint visited the home and said the surfaces had not been properly prepared before the new paint was put down.

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‘OVERSIGHT ON EVERYTHING WE DO’

Reached briefly last year, Mihalakis, the contractor from A&L Home Solutions, said he did what the job specifications called for and followed state DEP requirements. He said the job specifications limited the extent of work he could do.

“We have to do what the job spec says. On behalf of the state program, we’re there to remove hazards and make the area safe for children,” Mihalakis said. “We did everything to satisfy the lead inspectors and DEP requirements. There is oversight on everything we do.”

He said he understood the project was going to arbitration due to the Frenches’ complaints, and said he didn’t know what the concerns were with his work. He declined to discuss the job in more detail.

A crack is seen in the replacement window at the French family’s home in Augusta in July. It is one of three windows on the home that cracked shortly after a licensed lead paint abatement contractor installed them. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

A&L Home Solutions is licensed by the DEP as a certified lead abatement contractor. Contractors must be licensed by the DEP as a Healthy Home Contractor in order to do work through the state lead abatement program, according to Thistle.

The Frenches said they did not see the work in person until after it was already done because they moved to Colorado for a month to live with Kaylee’s mom while the abatement was underway.

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Kaylee French said Mihalakis sent them photographs of some of the work and told them the job was done. And they were sent documents from Penquis indicating the work was 100% complete, had been inspected and met governmental standards. So the couple signed off on releasing their $16,000 share of the project cost, which they were required to pay up front to the contractor.

They saw problems with the workmanship as soon as they returned home and notified Penquis, the day they got back, that the work was not OK. Kaylee French said Penquis officials responded by saying the problem was between the family and the contractor.

“Penquis is saying they have nothing to do with it, but they’re the ones that had their inspector sign off on it — they signed off on the work being good,” she said. “They’re trying to tell me this is between me and A&L, even though I signed paperwork with them, and they have their names all over it.”

Renae Muscatell, community relations manager for Penquis, declined to answer questions about the agency’s involvement with, and inspections of, the abatement project at the Frenches’ home, beyond explaining the Bangor-based agency’s participation in the lead abatement program.

“Penquis offers the Lead Abatement Program which helps remove or encapsulate lead hazards in the home,” Muscatell said in a written statement. “That program covers 10 counties, Hancock, Kennebec, Knox, Lincoln, Penobscot, Piscataquis, Sagadahoc, Somerset, Waldo and Washington. The program is open to both homeowners and landlords of rental properties. We do not have any additional comments to offer.”

INSPECTION REQUIREMENTS

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Thistle, of MaineHousing, said all work done in the lead abatement program is required to be inspected.

Federal and state guidance documents state inspection requirements include: All living areas require a lead inspection and risk assessment in accordance with standards set in the Lead Guide and MaineHousing’s Lead Contractor Standards and Conditions; all lead inspections must comply with Department of Environmental Protection Lead Management Regulations and Housing and Urban Development’s Guidelines for the Elimination and Control of Lead-Based Paint Hazards in Housing; inspections must be done within 12 months of work being completed; inspectors must use HUD-approved X-ray florescent equipment and dust wipe sampling as needed; and MaineHousing will pay community action agencies $600 for a lead inspection and risk assessment performed for each living unit.

A basement replacement window that was installed on top of a rotten wooden sill is seen in July at the French family’s home in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Lead inspectors must be trained in applicable standards including, according to federal and state lead program rules, Maine Uniform Building and Energy Code, accessibility standards and best practices, rehab standards, specification writing, job estimating and general construction practices. If they have not had all that training, they must complete it within 12 months of being hired.

Thistle, asked if MaineHousing had any problems or concerns about lead abatement projects administered or inspected by Penquis, said only: “MaineHousing is frequently in communications with the community action agencies we work with when problems arise in programs they are administering locally and this case is no different.”

A crack is seen in a replacement window at the French family’s home in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Kaylee French said Mihalakis, after their complaints were first raised, said he would come back and fix some of the bubbling-up paint and window openings that were damaged and replace the three windows that he’d installed that cracked, but she said he refused to get a permit for any of that work. She said without getting a permit, he can’t do any of that work. And she said Mihalakis now refuses to do anything at their home.

Now, following the terms of the contract for the job, both sides are awaiting arbitration to see if a neutral party, chosen by both sides, can resolve the dispute. If they cannot, the Frenches anticipate they’ll have their lawyer sue the contractor.

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Overton said the city of Augusta is not taking enforcement action against the family, for the contractor not obtaining a permit to replace their windows, and he is willing (if he’s allowed) to testify in the arbitration process about his assessment of the work.

She said they don’t feel Mihalakis could do the work and want him to pay to have another contractor redo the abatement to finally remove or encapsulate the lead paint and fix the damage to the home that they claim was done during the first abatement. She anticipates that could cost more than $60,000, altogether.

Previously scheduled arbitration sessions were postponed after Mihalakis, French said, was in Greece and unable to be reached, and then delayed by the French family after they hired a lawyer to represent them. French now anticipates arbitration taking place after they have their children assessed by Kennebec Pediatrics for any impacts to their development from the exposure to lead paint. That evaluation is now scheduled for February.

The kids are home-schooled, French noted, and thus spent nearly all their time at the home over the last six years. She said they need to remain in the Augusta area because Nathaniel French works for a local towing company.

“I’m very concerned about it, because it’s something they have to deal with every day, they’re here 24-7, so it’s not like they get away from it, at all,” Kaylee French said. “To be honest, if I had the money to do it, I would have moved out of this house and rented somewhere or bought another house.”


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