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E.P.A. Gives California Schools Pilot Asbestos-Inspection Grant

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Washington--An Environmental Protection Agency "pilot" program to help states pay for the removal of toxic substances will provide the California Department of Education with $150,000 to enable officials to inspect for asbestos contamination in 120 school districts. Under the terms of the program, the state must provide another $50,000 toward the effort.

"This is the first federal money going to a state to address a school asbestos problem," said Nancy Frost, chief of the pesticides and toxic section for epa Region IX, which includes California.

No Previous U.S. Support

A 1979 law had authorized the U.S. Education Department to provide money for asbestos detection and control, but department officials have never requested any funds, and the Congress has not appropriated any.

School-district officials, who were required under an epa rule to inspect for crumbling asbestos in schools and report their findings to the government by last June, have bitterly complained about the high cost of removing the possibly dangerous asbestos found and the negative effects of the publicity that surrounds the issue.

But while some in the Congress support bills to provide federal funds for inspection and removal efforts, Administration officials have not advanced similar proposals. And in March, epa officials assessed one New Hampshire district a $24,000 fine for its failure to publicize the results of its asbestos inspection.

California supplied no data for a survey of districts' compliance with the epa inspection rule conducted by the Education Department last fall.

Toxic Substances Act

According to a recent state survey, about 3,000 of California's 7,000 public-school buildings contained friable, or crumbling, asbestos, with the overall cost of cleanup estimated at somewhere between $73 million and $90 million. About 1,561 of the buildings still contain the asbestos, the survey found.

Ms. Frost said the funds for the grant to California come from money available to the epa under the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 to conduct pilot programs.

The grant money is to be used only for asbestos inspections, and not for any other purpose, such as asbestos removal, officials say.

Currently there are five pilot programs funded with tcsa grants, said Lorie Roeser, an environmental specialist with the agency in Washington. In Maryland, Michigan, Connecticut, and Ohio, she said, the pilot programs provide for inspections for pcb's (polychlorinated biphenyls).

"Rather than continuing with a pcb [inspection program]," Ms. Frost said, "we asked our headquarters office, 'what do you think about us working with the department of education in California to have school asbestos inspections done?' We all agreed this would be a good thing to do."

Decision Praised

John Bennett, a legislative aide for Representative George Miller, Democrat of California, praised the decision.

"I'm glad that the region acknowledged the strong need in California for resources," he said, "but I don't know whether there are implications beyond the designated purpose of the program. It was a decision made by one epa region, and not necessarily any national effort on epa's part."

Nevertheless, Ms. Frost said she would like to see the "pilot" program expanded.

"We expect it to be successful," she said, "and if it's successful we would like to be able to do this in other states, but there's a lot contingent upon that: Does the epa have the authority to expand the program? And does the epa have the funds to expand the program?"

Ms. Roeser said that "there are no plans or funding at this point to expand [the pilot program] nationally."

Region IX includes California, Arizona, Hawaii, and the Pacific Islands under U.S. control.

'Concern' Sparked Grant

Ms. Frost said a decision was made to ask that the tsca grant available for a pilot program in California be used for asbestos inspections because "there's a great deal of concern that asbestos may be present in the schools and that the children, the workers, and the maintenance people may be exposed to it. With the few inspections that we've had here, we have found that there is a relatively high noncompliance rate."

"We wanted to put more time and effort into this program to address the problem and this seemed like a viable way to go without taxing epa resources," Ms. Frost said.

A 1982 rule promulgated by the epa requires school officials to inspect for asbestos and, when found, to notify the public of possible hazards. Schools were given until June 23, 1983, to come into compliance with the rule, Ms. Frost said.

"In recent months, the agency has put more resources into the program," Mr. Bennett said, "and I think this grant is evidence of the higher priority school asbestos has been given."

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