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Agencies Cite Districts' Failure To Finish Asbestos Inspections

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Washington--Two months after the federally mandated deadline for school districts' inspections for asbestos contamination, two federal agencies are moving against districts that failed to meet it.

The U.S. Education Department (ed) has notified North Carolina's department of public instruction that almost 900 of its public schools are in violation of federal asbestos-notification regulations. And the Environmental Protection Agency (epa) has cited the Boston school system and the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston for failing to meet the June 28 deadline for reporting on removal operations in its schools.

The environmental agency's regulations required all districts to survey their schools for levels of asbestos by June 28, 1983.

Under the regulations, district officials were to investigate to see if any classrooms contained friable, or crumbling, asbestos; to notify parents and employees if the material were found; and to keep a record of the findings in a central place in each district, according to Edward A. Klein, director of the epa's chemical-control division.

Failure to comply with the epa regulations could cost school districts as much as $25,000 for each day a school is in violation, up to a $375,000 limit, according to epa officials. No fines have been levied to date, Mr. Klein said.

Later, an Education Department regulation stipulated that the states send the districts' survey results to the federal education agency by the June 28 deadline.

Asbestos was used in schools until the 1970's as a fire retardant and insulator. Inhalation of asbestos fibers has been linked with a variety of lung disorders, including cancer.

In North Carolina, 889 schools failed to meet the ed deadline. But Ralph Self, building-systems engineer in the state department of public instruction's division of school planning, said the problem is the result of a simple misunderstanding.

"We certainly would have sent these reports in if we had understood that the regulation was operative," Mr. Self explained, saying that he thought the reporting regulations were no longer in effect. When the regulation setting the June deadline was promulgated in May 1982, Mr. Self said, it did not contain information about reporting the results of surveys to ed

"We were still working very diligently on the asbestos problem," he said, but the surveys were being kept in each local district instead of being mailed to ed

"We may be behind on the paperwork, but we've done a lot of work on the problem," Mr. Self said. Of the state's 2,014 public schools, 1,125 have been inspected. "We're going to send out a memo and ask for the information on the [other 889] schools" to send to the government by the end of the month, he said.

Failing To Inspect Six Schools

The Boston school system was cited by the epa for failing to inspect six of 127 schools and for not complying with the agency's deadline for completing a progress report, according to Mr. Klein.

Ian Forman, a spokesman for the district, called the agency's action "a bum rap" and said no school district in the New England area has spent more time on the asbestos problem.

He said the system has been in constant contact with the epa and "they know exactly where we are" in our survey. "The only thing we haven't done is complete our report to them," he explained.

"Our chief complaint is the unnecessary alarm" caused by the citation, he said. The district has not notified parents and students of the situation because officials have decided to wait until all students have their school assignments. Schools are scheduled to start on Sept. 7.

In South Carolina, state education officials were given a year-long extension on the June 28 deadline. The extension, requested "well ahead of the June date," was granted so that the state could carry out a "serious and very good" inspection project, according to Mr. Klein.

The National School Boards Association is urging states to correct asbestos problems as soon as possible, but also argues that federal aid should be provided for the task.

A spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, testifying recently before the U.S. Senate's Subcommittee on Toxic Substances and Environmental Oversight, said the cost of removal in the public schools could reach $70 million.

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