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. (Published 5/25/2005)
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."
The problem with oil paints is that as they dry or sit out in the open, they give off volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that not only make the paint smell but interact with sun and heat to create ozone pollution. Recchia said alkyds create 170,000 tons of emissions a day in the so-called Ozone Transport Region. "It's one of the largest causes of VOC emissions, and it's comparable to some of the industrial plant sources," he said.
The rules do not eliminate VOCs but set such low limits that most products had to be reformulated into latex versions. And a few industrial-use paints, such as those for metal or roofs, were allowed to stay on the market. But the interior versions most popular with painters are going away. For high-end painters, oil has long been the covering of choice for wood trim and certain other applications.
"We're just not going to be able to do as nice a looking job as previously," said painter Mitchell Fagan, whose jobs include faux painting styles that rely on some of the oils taken off the market. "Once I've used what I've stockpiled, we won't be able to achieve certain looks."
Diez almost waxes poetic about the benefits of oil paint.
"With oil, you walk into the house, it's such a beautiful thing, it's hard to describe," he said. "Manufacturers claim what they have on the market is just as good as oil. It's not. It's nowhere near."
Other painters say the new products are just as good once you get to know them. But everyone agrees there's simply less to choose from now.
"Probably of the 15 to 20 [products] that were available before, maybe five or six came out to replace them," said Bryan Holland, manager of the Monarch Paint and Wallcovering Co. store on Connecticut Avenue in the District.
Some manufacturers have not done this reengineering willingly. Sherwin-Williams Co., the nation's largest paint maker, filed a lawsuit in Pennsylvania fighting the new laws, which it later dropped, but it still has a suit pending in New York. The company wants an exemption or extension for products it hasn't been able to reformulate, such as the oil-based wood stains sold under the Minwax brand.
"Oil-based stains are in effect being eliminated. Technology is not available to replace those," said Bill Rafie, director of marketing for Sherwin-Williams's commercial segment.
For a while, at least, some painters are looking for ways to beat the system. Quart-size containers have not been eliminated because they are such a small market that they don't pose much of an environmental threat. Some stores report that customers are buying -- at great cost -- four quarts to get a gallon. Others are stockpiling. And still others are getting behind the wheel.
Technically, road-tripping outside the Ozone Transport Region to get your paint fix is illegal, but there's not much enforcement, Recchia said.
Still, some painters don't want to take the risk, so they're just throwing in the towel and using whatever they can buy in the Washington area.
"I've been told the first person who gets caught doing this will wish they were never born," said Terry McEnaney, owner of Just Right Painting Co. in Alexandria. "So I figured I don't want to go through that."
Carlos Quintanilla, left, and Carlos Diez use oil-based paint for a contracting job in the District. Diez bought 1,000 gallons of it before the rule kicked in Jan. 1.
Manager Bryan Holland prepares oil-based paint for a customer at the Monarch Paint and Wallcovering Co. on Connecticut Avenue. The store can sell the oil-based paint it had on hand as of Jan. 1 but cannot order any more.