WEST CHESTER, Pa. - We already know the dangers lead can pose, particularly to children. So, you can probably understand why one local family was willing to temporarily move out of their home to get that problem fixed.
But now, six months later, they say their home is still too dangerous. And they say the company they hired to help them did anything but. FOX 29 Investigative Reporter Jeff Cole has a story every homeowner should see.
This old West Chester farm means a lot to Nicholas Bell.
"We grew up here, we've worked the house, all the gardens were done by my dad and I, fences we put up," said the college professor, who is seeking his doctorate.
He hoped to one day build a home of his own beside his parents' place on this serene slice of nature: "Our whole dream of this house is to be in the family for a long time."
When his dad passed away, plans changed.
Bell, his wife, Kristen, who is a nurse, and their kids moved into the 18th-Century farmhouse.
It adjoins the home where his mom continues to raise his three adopted siblings from Guatemala.
There was just one lingering concern about the farmhouse.
"You wanted to get that lead paint out of there?" Cole asked.
"Yes, I wanted to make it a safe environment for my three little kids. They're 6, 2 and 1," Bell said.
Now, his lawyers say the "once idyllic Chester County farmhouse" has become "a toxic wasteland."
The Bells, displaced since March, have only the clothing and items they took when they left.
What happened? Rhonda Sullivan happened.
Cole tried to ask the contractor about this situation: "Rhonda, can I talk to you about Nick Bell? Rhonda, he says his house is ruined. Can you talk to me about it at all? Why are you unwilling to talk about it?"
Bell says he looked into lead remediation and consulted with three contractors before hiring Sullivan's outfit, based in Wilmington, Del.
Bell found a YouTube video of a talk the owner and operator of Able & Sullivan, LLC, gave last year at a local community college.
"Lead-based paint is what we do primarily," Sullivan says in the video.
She later adds, "The company is a certified lead firm. We're licensed, insured and we've been operating since 2010."
"I'm a certified lead supervisor," she continues. "…I'm a lead-paint sampling technician, and I have a master's degree in historic preservation."
Bell says Sullivan spoke with him at length about the work. He liked that, as a small-business owner, she'd be on-site and seemed to have all the right answers.
Their contract said it would take approximately two weeks and $10,000 to "remove paint from surfaces identified by the owner as containing hazardous levels of lead-based paint." All work would be done "in accordance with EPA and state regulations."
The EPA says "lead paint is serious business." If your home was built before 1978, there's a good chance you have it. Paint chips and dust can be especially hazardous to kids, whose brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to lead's damaging effects. Firms have to be certified and do the cleanup to spec.
Michael Fox is another lead remediator from Controlled Environmental Systems, in Spring House, Pa.
"I'm going to want the homeowner to put all of their furniture in the center of the room so that I can properly protect it," Fox told us.
He told us how he sets up plastic and tarps to seal off work sites, saying, "It's essential to the project."
Crews may wear protective suits and respirators.
"Once it's finished, we go into a decontamination and cleaning of the area which, you know, is HEPA vacuuming, wet-wiping every surface in the room," Fox said.
A third-party inspector looks things over, then come the lab tests.
"This is serious business here? I mean, we're not playing around here. This place has to be safe and clean?" Cole asked.
"Yes," answered Fox.
Bell says Sullivan encouraged him to take the family on a spring break vacation the first week of their project.
Reports from home raised some red flags.
"The workers were coming in and out of the house without taking off their leg gear," Bell said. "They were chipping our doors that were identified to have lead paint on them on our front porch, without protective measures. They didn't seal off the entrances from one section of the house to another."
Bell also told us, "They were supposed to remove everything and put it on the other side. We designated an area with tape, and they didn't move anything out."
The Bells came home a day early and wound up calling the county health department, Pennsylvania's Department of Labor & Industry, and the EPA.
Inspectors apparently saw workers returning from a fast-food lunch break.
"When they got out of their car, they actually still had their lead abatement gear on," Bell said.
Sullivan wasn't there, Bell says. Inside, workers had failed to cover furniture, close off air ducts, or stay out of areas that were supposed to be sealed off. A fan was blowing right out an open window.
In a federal lawsuit, the Bells are accusing Able & Sullivan of "fraud" and seeking at least $80,000 to repair damage and clean or replace furnishings.
Environmental tests that show lead even in plants and soil out front could push that bill higher. The Bells were told most of their belongings may get tossed.
We went to Sullivan's home, left cards, called and emailed. We didn't hear back – so we tried again.
"Excuse me, Rhonda?" Cole called to her. "Rhonda, I need to talk to you about Nick Bell. Can you talk to me about that house? Rhonda, what happened there? Are you going to make it right for him?"
Sullivan pulled her pickup truck's door shut without answering.
As a "Certified Lead Abatement Contractor" in Delaware, Able & Sullivan must submit notification of its jobs. But authorities told us they had "no records of this company performing any abatement activities" in the First State when we checked.
Bell says Sullivan told him the company was licensed in Pennsylvania, but it's not, according to state labor officials, who say they are "currently investigating this situation."
"Pennsylvania says you were not licensed to do any remediation. Rhonda, we'd like to talk to you about this," Cole told Sullivan, but she drove away in her pickup.
Bell says they had a contract and he only stopped payment on a check when problems arose.
But that led Sullivan to claim it was a "ploy ... to obtain free services from an unsuspecting contractor."
Meanwhile, Bell told us, "My daughters just ask, 'When can we stop our vacation and move back into the home.' Because they view our apartment as a vacation right now."
More than six months later, the Bells are struggling to pay a home mortgage, plus rent.
"The thought of losing the place would have to make you heartsick," Cole said.
"For all of us, down to, I mean, my 1-year-old. We pulled up to the house today, and we pulled up to meet you guys, and she went right to the path to get into our entrance," Bell said, appearing to become emotional.
Again, Sullivan didn't respond to a card left at her door or repeated calls.
Thinking of getting this type of work done? Our expert says make sure to do your homework. Here are links to more information including online contractor searches:
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: https://www.epa.gov/lead
- Delaware: http://www.dhss.delaware.gov/dhss/dph/hsp/lead.html
- New Jersey: http://www.state.nj.us/dca/divisions/codes/offices/leadhazard_abatement.html
- Pennsylvania: http://www.health.pa.gov/My%20Health/Infant%20and%20Childrens%20Health/Lead%20Poisoning%20Prevention%20and%20Control/Pages/Contractors.aspx#.V_MidvArLIU