District Is Fined $24,000 by E.P.A.On Asbestos Rule
Washington--The Environmental Protection Agency, in a move designed to put schools across the country "on notice," last week assessed a $24,000 penalty against a New Hampshire school authority for failing to report the presence of friable asbestos in some of the buildings under its control.
Last week's action against New Hampshire Administrative Unit 19 marked the first time that the agency invoked its civil-complaint powers under a May 1982 rule requiring all public and private schools to inspect their buildings for the substance and to notify employees and parents of the findings.
"This action shows that epa will not hesitate to fine school officials in this country who are negligent in telling parents about any asbestos danger faced by their children," said Alvin L. Alm, the agency's deputy administrator, in announcing the penalty.
But the superintendent of the administrative unit that operates 10 schools in and around Goffstown, N.H., said the penalty was unfair; "a single telephone call" from epa officials could have settled the dispute, he added.
"There was never any question about our willingness to comply with the rule," said Antonio Paradis. "We never had any intention not to. We just didn't want to tell people here that we have friable asbestos in our schools when, in our opinion, that isn't the case."
Exposure to friable--or dry and crumbling--asbestos has been linked to lung cancer and mesothelioma, a cancer of the membranes that line the chest and abdomen. The substance was widely used as an insulating material, particularly on heating pipes and in sound-deadening and fireproofing panels, until the late 1960's, when scientific evidence associating it with health problems first emerged.
According to Mr. Paradis, Goffstown school officials spent about $54,000 in 1982 to remove asbestos panels from ceilings in one of the town's four school buildings.
Inspections of the remaining three buildings revealed asbestos-lined pipes in boiler rooms, Mr. Paradis continued. But parents and employees were not notified of its presence because it was "wrapped up and contained" and thus did not pose a health hazard, he said.
Late last October, epa officials told the administrative unit that it was in violation of the regulation and requested that it come into compliance within 30 days or submit a timetable for correcting the violations.
Mr. Paradis said he sent a letter to the agency on Nov. 7 asking it to reconsider its finding because, in the unit's opinion, the material was contained.
"I never heard from them again until I got this letter on Monday," he continued. "They notified the national press first that morning, then they called me later to ask if I got the letter. That tells me that they were not as interested in solving the problem as they were in making a big splash."
"There's no excuse for this kind of behavior," he said. "A single telephone call would have solved everything."
Report Blames Agency
Under the federal rule, the administrative unit has 20 days following notification of the penalty to request a hearing. Mr. Paradis said he expected the Goffstown school board to vote to request such a hearing by late last week.
The action against the Goffstown school unit came about one month after the release of an internal epa report blaming the agency's failure to place a high priority on the problem of asbestos in schools for the failure of school officials to comply with the regulation. (See Education Week, Feb. 8, 1984.)
The report noted that a survey of 275 local education agencies indicated that more than two-thirds were not complying with some parts of the rule.
Late last month, William D. Ruckelshaus, head of the epa, announced that the agency would reopen its rulemaking procedure to determine whether it needs to issue a new regulation requiring the containment or removal of the substance from schools.
The existing regulation only requires school officials to inspect buildings under their control for asbestos and to notify parents and employees if it is found in a friable state.