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Official Says That EPA Not Willing To Seek More Asbestos Funds

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The Environmental Protection Agency, charged with overseeing a $50-million grant-and-loan program for asbestos abatement in schools, might not ask Congress to fully fund the remainder of the $600 million program, an agency official said last week.

John A. Moore, assistant administrator of the pesticides and toxic substances division of the epa, said the agency's "current plan is not to seek" additional funds because to "hint money might become available" could cause school officials "to defer a proper abatement program."

"We're reluctant," Mr. Moore said, "to send a message that hope is right around the corner."

Mr. Moore made his comments during and after a three-hour Congressional hearing at which the agency came under attack for failing to provide asbestos-hazard guidelines and standards for corrective action.

Media coverage, however, focused on Mr. Moore's funding comments--which were6denounced by both Republicans and Democrats.

In an unusual move, the epa the next day issued a "clarification" of Mr. Moore's statements. The agency's position, an epa official said, "is to evaluate the implementation of the $50-million grant program before making any further requests. epafeels it is simply too early to know what funds will be needed in the future."

In August, the Congress passed the Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Act of 1984, which authorized that $600 million be provided through 1990 to help needy school systems remove or control asbestos hazards. Asbestos, which has been widely used in building materials, has been found to cause cancer and lung disease.

The epa was given authority to select by June of next year the schools that will benefit from the first $50 million appropriation. (For law's provisions, see page 16.)

"We're trying to tell people not to delay or revise any of their plans to do abatement work in anticipation of federal assistance because there just isn't that much available," said an epa official, who asked not to be identified.

"The position of the Administration is this is a state and local matter," the official continued. "Frankly, the initial $50 million has been voted and signed by the President only because it was part of another bill [the Education for Economic Security Act]. If this bill had come to the President standing alone, I don't think he would have signed it."

A Different View

Nevertheless, the sponsors of the bill predicted last week that Congress will continue to fund the asbestos program.

"We know that asbestos is a killer. Children exposed to it in school are in danger. It's that simple," said Senator Robert T. Stafford, Republican of Vermont, who is a co-sponsor of the bill.

"It's my view," he added, "that Congress will continue to provide money to schools in order to protect our children and that epa administrator William D. Ruckelshaus should faithfully execute environmental laws as they are written."

The other co-sponsor of the bill, Senator James Abdnor, Republican of South Dakota, said he was hopeful that the Administration would "re-examine this issue."

"The Senate has already anticipated a funding level of $50 million for asbestos in fiscal year 1985," he added. "I can assure you that as a member of the appropriation subcommittee that has jurisdiction over epa programs, I will seek another $50 million ... in fiscal year 1985 and $100 million for fiscal year 1986."

These amounts are consistent, he said, with the Congress's original authorization--$50 million in fiscal years 1984 and 1985, and $100 million each year thereafter through 1990.

Special language was written into the law to allow the $50-million allocation for fiscal 1984, which ended Sept. 30, to be spent in fiscal 1985.

'Disturbing' Announcement

Representative James J. Florio, a Democrat of New Jersey, said Mr. Moore's statement on funding was the "most disturbing" thing he had heard at the hearing.

However, during the hearing--held by the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Transportation, and Tourism, which is chaired by Representative Florio--representatives of union employees, New Jersey parents, and businesses that formerly manufactured asbestos products also attacked the epa for failing to establish rules and regulations for asbestos-control activities and for specifically determining when a hazard requiring corrective action exists.

Hugh J. Wessinger, a senior associate director with the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of the Congress, said the findings of his agency's 1982 report on the epa's efforts to reduce asbestos hazards in schools still hold true.

"Our report concluded," he said, "that until the epa develops more specific criteria about when asbestos poses a serious problem requiring abatement actions, school officials may continue to overreact and spend money needlessly or, more importantly, underreact and expose occupants to hazardous asbestos conditions."

'Program Is Working'

"In our opinion," Mr. Moore said, "the school program is working. Asbestos is being abated from schools where it poses potential hazards and, as a result, our school children are being protected."

Mr. Moore noted the agency's strong stance in levying fines on school officials who fail to inspect for asbestos, inform parents and staff of its presence, and keep adequate records.

The agency, he said, has spent $500,000 to inspect 1,500 schools in the last 10 months; next year, he added, $2 million will be spent to inspect an estimated 2,500 schools.

In addition, Mr. Moore said, the agency will increase its technical-assistance staff; establish three pilot technical-information and training centers; develop a model contractor-certification program; and strongly consider a re-inspection rule.

But the agency cannot, and has failed in past attempts to, promulgate regulations for when an asbestos condition requires corrective action, Mr. Moore said.

"It has to be done on a case-by-case basis," he said. And that, he added, is why there is a "critical need for technical assistance."

Representative Florio maintained, however, that "something more than guidance is required." What is needed, he said, is "a regulation with the force of law spelling out standards people should be looking to [and] spelling out appropriate remedial action."

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