Asbestos Panel To Meet in Wake Of House Vote
Washington--A federal task force on asbestos in the schools that last met in 1980 will reconvene at a meeting tentatively scheduled for late October, a U.S. Education Department official said last week.
The task force, established by the 1980 Asbestos School Hazard Detection and Control Act to provide schools with scientific and medical information on asbestos, is composed of technical experts from six federal agencies and four representatives from outside the federal government.
The official said the task force is likely to take up the controversial question of "minimum exposure," which has plagued school officials who must decide whether any asbestos they find poses a health hazard to staff members and students.
Word of the re-activation of the task force came the week after the House voted to appropriate $50 million for a low-cost loan program, to be administered by the Education Department, to provide support for asbestos-control efforts in the schools.
The vote represented the first time that either house of the Congress had approved funds for asbestos control in the schools, although such a program was authorized by the 1980 Asbestos School Hazard Detection and Control Act.
The Senate has no analogous provision in its fiscal 1984 appropriations bill, but Congressional aides said there is "broad support" for asbestos-cleanup funds and that when the bill reaches a conference committee, the Senate may adopt the House provision.
This summer, the Senate Appropriations Committee requested that the ed prepare a status report on the school-asbestos problem, including estimates of its extent and the potential for a federal role in paying for cleanup. The report was due Sept. 1; department officials requested and were granted an extension, and expect to complete the report by Oct. 1. However, the committee has already completed work on the appropriations bill.
The House vote and the signs of renewed activity by the education agency coincided with reports indicating that less than half of public and private schools nationwide have complied with all or part of an Environmental Protection Agency's inspection regulation. An internal memorandum, a copy of which was obtained by Education Week, reported an 80-percent noncompliance rate in a group of schools about which complaints were received.
The memorandum indicated that the principal element in school officials' noncompliance was the failure to notify parents and staff members if asbestos was found. An epa spokesman said that school officials seemed reluctant to notify the community of a situation that they had no funds to correct and whose precise dangers remained unclear.
The ed activity on asbestos, which the department official linked to "Congressional pressure," suggests that the asbestos problem is assuming a higher priority for the department and that the Administration has shifted its stance on the issue.
"The attitude to date has essentially been that buildings were built with state and local monies, and state and local officials should take care of [asbestos control] as they would take care of any other maintenance program," said W. Stanley Kruger, deputy director for the department's state and local education programs. "What has now come to the fore is the question of overriding national health concern."
The Education Department regulations created under the 1980 act are one part of the federal rules that govern schools' approach to the problem of asbestos. There is no federal requirement, however, that schools remove asbestos. The epa inspection regulation, established under the Toxic Substances Control Act, required that schools inspect for the presence of friable--crumbling--asbestos by June 28, 1983 and notify parents and school employees if 'the substance was found.
Recent statistics from both agencies suggest that schools have been slow to comply with the regulations, and that the ed has only recently taken steps to improve compliance.
The internal epa memorandum, prepared for Alvin Alms, the agency's deputy administrator, noted that an initial survey of 167 schools in 57 school districts found that 80 percent, or 45 of the districts, have not complied with some part of the agency's asbestos-inspection rule.
The memo states: "This violation rate likely overstates the true noncompliance picture, since most of these initial inspections arose from complaints or violative conditions which became known to the regions through the voluntary program."
According to the memo: "The most frequently detected violations are 1) failure to notify [parent-teacher associations] and employees; 2) failure to maintain adequate records of the results of school-by-school inspections/sampling; and 3) failure to inspect or sample.
"The Agency is finding that while most [Local Education Associations] have performed mandated inspection and sampling, they are reluctant to notify, and have not documented properly their inspection/sampling efforts."
62 Percent Noncompliance
An epa spokesman said the overall rate of noncompliance nationally, based on data available as of Sept. 23, is 62 percent. That figure includes schools that have failed to comply with all aspects of the regulation, as well as those that have complied with only part of it.
The compliance data, the spokesman said, reflect the initial finding that failure to notify their communities, not failure to inspect, is the larger problem among school officials. "Most of them are having trouble coming up with a solution," the spokesman said, and until they do, they are reluctant to tell parents and school employees that asbestos is present. "If they have a problem, they don't know what to do with it."
The epa estimates that, when all the data are in, between 12 and 15 percent of all schools will report the presence of friable asbestos. A survey earlier this year by the Service Employees Union International estimated that about 10 percent of the schools contain friable asbestos.
Within two years, the epa "hopes to survey" 20 percent of the public and private schools nationally. The agency also plans to fund an existing volunteer program, which uses retired engineers and technical experts as consultants in the school. The program is coordinated by the American Association of Retired Persons (aarp). According to the memo, epa expects to provide $500,000 to the aarp from its current budget.
Schools have also been slow to comply with the ed regulations, which required states to file a plan on how they would provide schools with and keep records on asbestos control. The plans were to be followed by three semiannual progress reports. The initial plans were due in 1981, but the department did not send out notices to those states or territories that had failed to comply with either requirement until May 1983, according to Mr. Kruger.
In May, seven states had not filed plans, 36 states had failed to submit any follow-up reports, and 14 states had not submitted all the follow-up reports. Rather than requiring the states to send the separate follow-up reports, the ed asked for a "summary report." As of last week, 13 states and territories had not submitted reports, Mr. Kruger said.
They were Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Dakota, Vermont, Wisconsin, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and Guam.
In addition to re-activating their task force, federal education officials are also considering ways to position the asbestos program within the department. One option would be to include it with other programs related to school construction, officials said.
Department officials acknowledged that the program has been largely ''dormant" for the past two years. They also acknowledged that the recent reorganization of the Education Department abolished the position held by the staff member responsible for the asbestos program. The task of running the asbestos program, the officials said, has been assumed by other employees.