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Alabama Officials Clash Over State's Asbestos-Removal Program

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Officials in Alabama are wrangling over the implementation of a state plan to remove friable, or crumbling, asbestos from public-school buildings. Alabama is one of the first states to coordinate activities to remove asbestos from all of its public schools.

Last week, State Attorney General Charles Graddick wrote a letter to Gov. George C. Wallace accusing Phillip L. Fretwell, the state building commissioner, of delaying the proposed plan to remove the asbestos from the schools.

Mr. Graddick said Mr. Fretwell had turned a "workable" plan to clean up schools into an "inefficient and impenetrable bureaucratic boondoggle laced with red tape."

But Mr. Fretwell responded that Mr. Graddock's complaints about the slowness of the asbestos-removal effort are purely "self-serving and political."

He said Mr. Graddick had approved the implementation schedule established last year. But now that there is increased public pressure to make sure all schools are free of asbestos before the next school year begins, Mr. Fretwell contended, the attorney general wants to speed up the project even if it is "prior to adequate training of architects and engineers and results of sampling and testing of buildings."

Immediate Removal of Asbestos

Under a regulation promulgated by the Environmental Protection Agency (epa) last May, all U.S. schools must be inspected for friable asbestos by June 28. (See Education Week, May 4, 1983.) But Alabama's program goes beyond the requirements of that rule in calling for the immediate removal of asbestos that is found during inspections.

Asbestos removal is "a brand new field" and "precious few" specialists have been trained, Mr. Fretwell said.

He noted that if any "log jam" in the implementation of the asbestos-removal project exists, it was not caused by his department but by the epa, which recommends that at least 32 steps be taken in the clean-up process.

The process, Mr. Fretwell pointed out, begins with contacting an asbestos surveyor, identifying affected areas, taking random samplings, determining a "hazard rating," retaining architects and engineers, advertising for bids and awarding contracts for removal, preparing the work area, completing the cleanup, and following up by retesting the area.

The asbestos-removal plan, devised last October, calls for all public-school systems to test for asbestos, devise a program for its removal, and to clean up schools by the time they open in September.

The Public School and College Authority (psca), which comprises the governor, the state superintendent, and the state finance director, raises money for capital improvements through the sale of bonds, and has agreed to allocate $75 million in funds for asbestos re-moval. The agreement was reached last October following a lawsuit filed by Mr. Graddick, whose two children attend a school with a high level of asbestos in the air.

A 'Public Nuisance'

The attorney general's class action sought funding for asbestos removal from the psca and school districts on the grounds that asbestos is a "public nuisance" that poses a danger to the health of students, teachers, and other school personnel.

There are 128 school districts and some 1,500 elementary- and secondary-school buildings in Alabama, according to state education department officials.

All the buildings at least have to be inspected, Mr. Fretwell said.

Moreover, he said, delays were caused because the state buildings office has had to wait until epa could set up training-center dates for architects and engineers because trained technicians from the epa office in Atlanta were not immediately available.

In addition, Mr. Fretwell said, the state got off to a slow start in the project because it had to advertise for bids and evaluate proposals for the initial testing contract. The contract, which went to Safe State of the University of Alabama, an organization that researches safety and hazards, was signed in January.

Safe State is almost finished with the final testing of school buildings, according to Frank T. Speed, assistant director of the division of regulation and finance who, until two weeks ago, was responsible for the schools' part in implementing the asbestos-removal program.

"Everything is on schedule. Nobody is dragging their feet," Mr. Speed said.

"We can't just go willy-nilly and flail arms around and solve the problem," Mr. Fretwell said. He noted that those states that went in too fast to clean up the schools often found that they had "poorer air quality after the cleanup than before."

He said that he would rather wait a few extra weeks and do everything thoroughly, asking the legislature for additional funds if necessary, so the state will not have to face the problem of asbestos removal again in the future.

"Some schools have had the problem for 20 years. A few more weeks won't make much difference," Mr. Fretwell said.

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