Correction to This Article
A May 24 article on oil-based paints incorrectly described the mission of the Ozone Transport Commission. The OTC was created by the Clean Air Act to help eastern states develop regulations that would reduce ground-level ozone pollution.

Supply of Oil-Based Paint Thins as New Rule Takes Effect

Carlos Quintanilla uses oil-based paint, the sale of which has been restricted in the region since Jan. 1. Few people know about the rule intended to reduce ground-level ozone pollution.
Carlos Quintanilla uses oil-based paint, the sale of which has been restricted in the region since Jan. 1. Few people know about the rule intended to reduce ground-level ozone pollution. (By Andrea Bruce Woodall -- The Washington Post)
By Margaret Webb Pressler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Carlos Diez felt a little extreme when he stockpiled 1,000 gallons of oil-based house paint last November. But with his stash of the precious glossy dwindling, he's going a bit crazy again, stopping at any store he thinks might have some cans squirreled away.

"I feel like an addict. I went to Strosniders last week in Bethesda. They had about 40 gallons. I bought all 40 gallons," he said. "I've been talking to everyone. I say, 'You have paint? What color?' If it's a color I think I can use, I buy it."

When his stockpile is gone, he said, "I don't know what I'm gonna do."

What he'll probably do is switch to latex paint, as so many other painters in the area have done because of a new, but largely unpublicized, regulation restricting the sale of oil-based, or alkyd, paint in the mid-Atlantic region. It's a measure aimed at reducing ground-level ozone pollution, but it's one that many consumers and painters were unaware of until oil paint just started vanishing.

"I will have to say that 75 percent of them don't have a clue," about the new rule, said Edgardo Lopez, assistant manager of the Northern Virginia paint store Alexandria Paint Co. "Twenty-five percent have heard a little bit but thought it was a myth."

Similar rules have been in effect for a while in California, and restrictive oil-paint laws are being crafted in many northern states. But the mid-Atlantic region has not made as much progress reducing overall pollution as New England has, so the paint restrictions kicked in first in this area. Since Jan. 1, stores in the District, Northern Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New York have not been able to order most of the oil-based paints commonly used in household and commercial applications.

Paint stores are allowed to sell the alkyds they had on the shelves when the rule took effect, and some stores piled up their stockrooms in anticipation of the change. But those reserves are slowly depleting, just as painting season arrives.

That has created a burgeoning market for imports -- from southern Virginia, where the restrictions are not in place because the pollution there is not as bad. At the Virginia Paint Co. Benjamin Moore store in Fredericksburg, there has been a spike in oil paint sales.

"It's been growing as they sell out of inventory in Northern Virginia," said Ted Arthur, outside sales representative for the store. "We're starting to see that influx of customers here to get that oil-based product, definitely."

Not all painters are wedded to oil-based paint, as it smells, it's harder to clean up and it dries so hard that it can crack rather than breathe with the typical expansion and contraction that weather can cause. There have also been great strides in the quality of water-soluble latex paint in recent years, in part because manufacturers have known for at least a decade that this regulation was coming. Oil paint accounted for 16.5 percent of the market in 2003, according to the Commerce Department, down from 18 percent in 1997.

Because many painters now use latex, especially for exterior jobs, little information about this change was passed on to painters and consumers.

"This was supposed to be relatively seamless for them," said Christopher Recchia, executive director of the Ozone Transport Commission, an organization created under the Clean Air Act and charged with helping Eastern states develop regulations to prevent further diminishing of the ozone. "For the most part, you can go and buy these products that not only work as well as the other products, but they are environmentally safer."

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