A dispute over invisible, but potentially dangerous, radon gas is unfolding in Howard County Circuit Court over a radon contractor's claim that county inspectors are not making home builders toe the line on required equipment.
Paul V. Jennemann, a 79-year-old Ellicott City radon equipment contractor, filed a court action last month seeking to force county inspectors to do a better job of making builders properly install required radon abatement equipment in new homes. Jennemann said the filing, which names County Executive Ken Ulman and the County Council as defendants, follows years of arguing his point in letters and phone calls to county officials.
But Bob Francis, director of the county Department of Inspections, Licenses and Permits, insists that the job of enforcing the building code requirements adopted by the council in 2001 is being carried out scrupulously by inspectors for plumbing, concrete and electrical work.
"I think we're doing an excellent job," he said, adding that if builders make mistakes "we fail the inspection until they fix it."
County lawyers are seeking dismissal of the action - called a writ of mandamus - arguing that Jennemann is trying to get a judge to take away the county's right to use professional judgment in how inspectors operate.
"He is seeking to enforce a discretionary duty that is vested in county policymakers," argued Assistant County Solicitor Barry M. Sanders in the filed reply. Sanders also said Jennemann's claim is technically flawed and based on his conclusions rather than on fact.
But the contractor said the stakes are too high to back off, arguing in reply that "enforcement is not discretionary."
"It is my firm belief that the failure of the Howard County Department of Inspections to enforce the code is detrimental to the health and welfare of the citizens of this county," Jennemann wrote.
Anti-radon equipment is installed by plumbers who place a 4-inch layer of gravel and plastic pipes under plastic sheeting beneath the concrete basement slab before it is poured. The gravel allows the gas to move and enter the pipe, which then extends up into the attic, where a fan can be installed later if needed. The sheeting helps seal the gas off from the basement. Each of these stages of work is reviewed by county inspectors.
Jennemann contends the different subcontractors aren't supervised by radon experts and sometimes don't coordinate their work enough to allow the system to work properly. He said that pipes are sometimes placed so gas won't enter them beneath the basement floor, and the attic end can be in such difficult spots as to be impossible to use.
The court filing has a simple purpose, Jennemann said.
"All it does is require the county executive to do his duty," he said.
Since the state has no radon requirement for builders, the role of county inspectors is even more important, he said.
Radon is an invisible, tasteless, odorless gas resulting from the breakdown of uranium in soil, rock and water, and tends to collect in some home basements, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The substance can cause cancer over time, especially in people who also smoke, the EPA said. It is the second-leading cause of lung cancer, the U.S. surgeon general said in 2005. Simple test kits can detect radon, however, and it can be easily dispersed.
But Jennemann believes most homeowners are oblivious to the danger, lulled into a false sense of security reinforced by builders and real estate agents reluctant to dwell on negatives that could add expense to a house.
Susan Stroud, director of government affairs for the Maryland Association of Home Builders, was critical of Jennemann's claim, saying members follow the law. She added that his argument appears self-serving since he makes money by installing radon-reduction equipment.
"He doesn't have a legitimate beef," Stroud said. Builders do what the Howard County code requires, she said, saying that people like Jennemann are merely "fear mongers."
Suzi Padgett, president of the Howard County Association of Realtors, said buyers of existing homes often ask for an optional radon test, which is listed among other items on a list of inspection options supplied by the Maryland Association of Realtors when a sale contract is prepared.