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INVESTIGATION: Thousands of landlords not following new law

STATEWIDE (WGME) -- A new law is on the books in Maine intended to protect renters from the risks of radon. It's been two months since all landlords were required to test for the dangerous, invisible gas linked to lung cancer, but we found thousands of landlords still aren't following the radon rules.

We caught up with Jillian Madden as she moved into her new apartment in Portland. She admits she didn't ask about radon testing in the building, and it wasn't on her list of apartment "must haves."

"Did they tell you anything about radon testing before you moved in?"On Your Side Investigative Reporter Jon Chrisos asked.

"This building, no, another apartment we looked at did," Madden said.

Effective March 1, landlords are required by state law to test for radon and give tenants the results within 30 days of getting them or before signing a lease with a new tenant. Madden says she didn't get the radon disclosure form. The state confirms, if the testing was done, results weren't reported to them either, also required by law.

We called the management company, Port Property Management, and even stopped by. But we were told no one was available to talk about it.

"I'm a nursing major so I know that it's obviously not healthy to get exposure to radon," Madden said.

And in fact, it can be deadly. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates radon causes more than 20,000 deaths every year in the United States. While the EPA says there are high levels of radon  in every state, Maine has some of the worst, with high levels in almost every county.

It's a big reason why Maine lawmakers took an unprecedented step.

"Maine is the first to require testing in rental properties," Bob Stilwell, Maine Division of Environmental Health, Radon Licensing & Indoor Air Quality, said.

We found landlords are struggling to comply with that radon testing rule. Stilwell says only about 2,000 landlords completed the testing so far. For some perspective, the state estimates there are 3,000 landlords just in Portland and about a 100,000 rental buildings in the state.

"My guess is there are a lot of units that need to be tested because there are not enough registered testers available to do it in the short time frame people are trying to do it," Stilwell said.

Tester Tom Caron with Northeast Inspection Services backs that up. He's been swamped with requests for radon tests.

"A lot of landlords weren't up on the rules and the landlords are playing catch up now," Caron said.
 
The president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association says he keeps hearing the same thing.

"We meet with landlords every day who are realizing, this happened, there's a radon regulation ... and they're surprised to hear that," Brit Vitalius said.

Brenda Adler with Vanguard Property Management says she found out about the deadline at the last minute and had a tough time getting the testing done in the buildings she owns and manages in the Augusta area.

"It was frustrating, and it was hard to put all together. There was a lot of planning that needed to be done and quickly with the deadlines. Glad it's over. I wouldn't want to have to do it again," Adler said.

Landlords and property management companies not following the new rules can be fined $250 for each violation. It's not clear who will enforce those penalties, but the state is working with the Attorney General's office to figure that out.

The state says many landlords are choosing to get radon mitigation systems, but they don't have to. The law only says, they have to disclose radon levels to tenants. If high levels aren't taken care of, the landlord or tenant can end the lease.