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Asbestos Report Causes Confusion In New Jersey

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As schools across the country opened last week, New Jersey education officials were tackling a mammoth public-relations problem prompted by the release of a state report that about 200 schools involved in asbestos-removal projects might not be ready to open.

Public-information telephone lines were staffed around the clock and over the Labor Day weekend, as parents and members of the press called to determine how many and which schools would not open as scheduled.

The calls began after the Public Advocate's Office, a watchdog agency in the state's executive branch, released a report on Aug. 29 asserting that about 200 of the 300 New Jersey schools that had received permission to remove asbestos during the summer had not been inspected and given final approval to open.

Never Again

As a variety of officials from the Governor to the state commissioner of education sought to clarify the situation last week, daily reports on the number of schools affected whittled the count to 19 as of Thursday evening. An obviously chagrined Gov. Thomas Kean blamed inadequate state policymaking and planning for the disarray, telling reporters, "Hopefully, we will learn from this and never allow these problems to happen in the future."

Nevertheless, they dramatically illustrated the problem faced by school officials throughout the country as they try, amid growing public concern, to deal with a potential health hazard in the absence of standard prescribed procedures.

Federal law requires only that school officials inspect for asbestos and notify parents and employees if any is found.

The law does not require that asbestos be removed, although recommended guidelines have been issued by the Environmental Protection Agency for those who choose to do so.

Asbestos, widely used in the past as a building and insulating material, has been found to cause cancer and other severe, and sometimes fatal, illnesses in those who breathe or swallow its fibers.

"The problem we're facing is not whether asbestos should be removed or whether it shouldn't be removed, but whether it's being done properly," said Carl Golden, press secretary to Governor Kean.

"The problems we're facing come from improper removal. If anything, you'll probably see a movement toward greater state authority monitoring the job as it goes on," he continued.

Certificate of Occupancy

Under New Jersey laws, local school officials decide whether or not to remove asbestos. If they decide to do so, they must file notice of their intent with the state department of education.

State officials require a pre- and post-inspection by state officials, daily monitoring of the project by local officials, and a final air sampling analyzed by a laboratory before they will issue a "certificate of occupancy."

Without that certificate, a school cannot re-open.

Two days after the Public Advocate's Office issued its report, Saul Cooperman, the commissioner of education, announced at a press conference that nearly 100 schools had not met the necessary requirements to obtain the certificate.

Last Wednesday, when school officials reported that the number of unfinished or uninspected projects was down to 32, Mr. Cooperman announced at a press conference that poor record-keeping by state officials was to blame for the higher figure reported previously.

Other Charges Made

But more serious charges were lodged by the public advocate's office. According to the report, inspectors are "grossly overworked" and have received "minimal training" in asbestos-removal techniques.

In addition, school boards, "in6their hurry to get the jobs done as quickly as possible so as not to delay school openings ... often create an atmosphere which fosters [the belief among] contractors that they can get away with less than total compliance with job specifications," the report said.

The public advocate's office also noted that "there is no state agency willing, at present, to take the lead in coordinating and directing this complex undertaking. Indeed, there is much confusion with regard to agency responsibility and authority."

In presenting the report, Richard Shapiro, a staff member in the office, said, "It is well documented that the improper removal of asbestos can be far more hazardous than if the asbestos is not removed at all."

The report said inspectors had observed:

Workers flushing asbestos down toilets.

Workers routinely forgetting to shower upon leaving the work area.

A worker fully protected with respirator and disposable clothing handing bags of asbestos to unprotected workers through a slit in the prescribed plastic-enclosed work-area.

Workers transporting asbestos from the removal sites in their cars to unknown destinations.

Workers tracking asbestos from contaminated areas to previously uncontaminated areas.

Licensing Bill

A bill awaiting Governor Kean's signature would require the licensing and regulation of "employers and individuals engaged in removing and applying asbestos," Mr. Golden said. The bill, he said, would authorize the state departments of health, labor, and environmental protection to develop the licensing criteria.

Also, Governor Kean earlier this year appointed an Asbestos Policy Committee, headed by J. Richard Goldstein, the state health commissioner, to develop a uniform state policy on asbestos.

The group is expected to complete a preliminary report by the end of September.

The federal environmental agency, under pressure from education groups and the Service Employees International Union, is also considering changes in its asbestos rule.

Testimony from four recent meetings has been analyzed by a consulting firm, Karen Hoffman, an epa specialist, said last week. The agency's reaction to the findings can be expected in about two months, she said.

As of Aug. 31, the epa had filed 34 civil complaints against school districts for noncompliance with its asbestos rules. Fines have ranged from $6,000 to $237,000 for such violations as failures to inspect, sample, analyze, notify, and keep records.

Consultants in Philadelphia

The School District of Philadelphia was also struggling last week with substantial asbestos-related problems.

Out of 11 schools in which asbestos projects were to have been completed, officials said, three opened on time, one was to open last Friday, four will open about a week late, one will be closed for a month, with students attending a nearby school on split shifts, another will be closed for at least two months, and one school will remain closed all year.

Officials there are working with two outside consultants--one hired by the teachers' union and one by the district--to ensure the safe removal of the asbestos.

"When you let a contractor come in, you have to be tough on them and tell them they have to follow stringent safety standards," said William Jones, spokesman for the Philadelphia school district.

"It's not difficult to find contractors, it's difficult to find competent contractors, contractors who know what they're doing. ... We literally had to watch them every day to see that they followed instructions," he said.

$17.7-Million Program

Last September, Philadelphia school officials approved a three-year, $17.7-million program to remove asbestos from 44 schools. The project got underway this summer in 11 schools at an estimated cost of $5 million, Mr. Jones said.

Original plans called for the removal of asbestos from two of the problem schools over the course of several summers, Mr. Jones said. But, he added, upon the advice of the consultants, who found the health hazard too great, school officials decided to keep the schools closed until the work was completed.

Besides notifying the public, rearranging bus schedules, re-opening a closed school, and adding extra classes to accommodate students displaced by the asbestos-removal program, school officials said they were faced with the laborious task of removing equipment and instructional materials from the contaminated schools.

"The biggest problem is the cleaning process and the moving of books and supplies and equipment," Mr. Jones said. "Every single piece has to be wiped down, inspected, and tested before it is moved."

Asbestos Problems Elsewhere

In other parts of the country:

About 500 students attending Franklin Elementary School in Reistertown, Md., were told on their first day of classes that for the the next four to six weeks they would attend other local schools while asbestos was being removed from their building.

Donald Rascoe, a spokesman for the Baltimore County Public Schools, said the original plan, approved by the local health department, had been to keep the students in the school and seal off the areas being worked on by the asbestos-removal contractors.

But four days before school opened, "the superintendent suggested that might not be the best way," Mr. Rascoe said. "The hysteria is such we would prefer to have the children out of school."

Areas contaminated by asbestos in 121 schools in the District of Columbia have been sealed off. Since April, school officials say they have spent $725,000 on asbestos abatement, which is primarily a stop-gap effort to cover crumbling asbestos. Officials estimate that they would have to spend as much as $50 million to remove asbestos from the schools.

In Portland, Ore., school officials are watching the asbestos in their schools. "We don't feel that any of the [109] buildings [determined to have asbestos] are dangerous," said Kyle Kaser, a safety specialist with the school system. "It's only a hazard if it's in the air. What we're doing is making sure open ends of pipes, tears, and bruises are being rewrapped. We have five masons doing that daily."

In Clark County, Nev., where 83 schools were found to have asbestos, a $37-million project has been approved to both abate asbestos and retrofit the schools in accordance with state fire codes. According to Kathleen Harney, a planning coordinator, work to remove asbestos found around pipes and boilers in 72 schools will begin in 1985 and run through 1989.

Of the 11 schools that have more serious problems, she said, three have encapsulated their asbestos with a sealant or have enclosed asbestos-containing areas. Work on the Las Vegas High School auditorium will begin in l988; and the "major removal jobs" that are necessary in seven schools will begin in l985 and last through l990, she said. The schools, Ms. Harney said, have not been closed but will undergo periodic testing.

Members of Parents Against Asbestos Hazards in the Schools, a loosely organized group claiming as many as 1,000 members throughout New Jersey, went to court last week and received permission to hire outside contractors to inspect school buildings in the South Orange-Maplewood School District for asbestos contamination. Test results were scheduled to be presented in court last Friday.

The parents argued that renovation work being conducted in the schools had dislodged dangerous asbestos fibers. As a result of the controversy, school officials decided to postpone school opening until Sept. 10.

Susan Mazzocchi, a leader of the parents group, said the group strongly supports a plan members have developed to boycott the schools if they open under questionable safety conditions.

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