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E.P.A. Ranks School-Asbestos Hazards By Severity

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Washington--Environmental Protection Agency officials last week called together representatives of national education associations to explain the agency's new system of ranking asbestos hazards in schools.

The system, which is intended to help state officials determine which schools should receive some of the $50 million in federal asbestos clean-up funds, describes six levels of asbestos hazard, from most to least serious. The hazard-ranking system has in recent weeks been sent out to governors or their designees, who are responsible for ranking grant applications at the state level.

The issuance of the new guidelines marks something of a change in the agency's public posture on the school asbestos problem. epa officials had previously insisted that it would be impossible to determine when asbestos is hazardous and which abatement activities should be undertaken, except on a case-by-case basis.

Agency officials told the school leaders last week that the rankings were needed as part of the application process for the grants and loans program created by the Congress under the Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Act of 1984. That act requires the epa to award the funds by June 6 to schools with the most serious hazards and the greatest financial need.

New Guidelines

In addition to the hazard-ranking system, the agency has distributed a policy statement to local school systems and state officials that provides general guidelines for classifying and evaluating asbestos hazards, determining the qualifications of asbestos-abatement contractors, and advising and protecting school employees who perform abatement activities. Those guidelines were also required by the Congress.

For several years, the Service Employees International Union, which represents some 100,000 school-maintenance workers, has asked for standards to protect workers and to ensure that only trained asbestos contractors are used. However, the new guidelines are not obligatory, although certain terms from the guidelines may be included in individual grant and loan agreements, which would make them enforceable in those instances, said Larry Culleen, a member of the epa's Asbestos Action Program.

The Ranking System

The agency has identified the worst hazard as badly damaged, exposed asbestos, officials explained. The second-worst hazard is badly damaged asbestos located in the space between a school building's structural ceilings and its suspend-ed ceilings or air ducts.

Material located in this space, or in a forced airstream such as an air-conditioning or heating duct, is dangerous because it is likely to suffer surface erosion, the officials said. Air passing through the ducts or ceiling space could then transport the released fibers to other parts of the building, increasing the number of people exposed, the agency wrote.

The "hazard" category into which a school is initially placed has nothing to do with the number of students or school employees exposed to friable asbestos, epa officials emphasized.

Thus, a boiler room in a small school--where only the custodian would be exposed to asbestos, but the asbestos is in an extremely friable condition--could end up in the most hazardous category.

Abatement of that problem would be funded before funding a project to remove or contain moderately damaged asbestos in a high-school gym, said Susan Vogt, director of the agency's Asbestos Action Program, which is handling the grants and loans.

Awards Process

Schools had until last week to apply to state officials for the federal funds. The governors or their designees are responsible for placing applicants' requests into one of the six "hazard" categories. States must send their list of priority sites to the epa by March 15.

epa officials said last week that the agency will rank the schools in each of the six hazard categories using one of the following measures: the square footage of material containing asbestos; the number of hours in which students, teachers, and employees are exposed to the substance; or the cost-effectiveness of the proposed abatement activity. The agency will then develop a national ranking that will list the most hazardous sites within the top few categories.

Funds Will Be Limited

But according to Ms. Vogt, the agency will probably run out of money somewhere in the midst of funding programs in the top hazard category.

She also said it is unlikely that the agency will reimburse schools that completed abatement activities after Jan. 1, 1984,--even though it is allowed to do so by law--because there is so little funding available. (The abatement law stipulates that no schools whose work was completed prior to Jan. 1, 1984, may be considered for aid.)

Similarly, the agency is unlikely to provide money to schools that are already receiving state assistance.

Financial Need

After ranking the schools, the agency will determine which will actually receive money, how much, and whether it will be a grant or a loan. These determinations will be made on the basis of a school's financial need.

The epa is proposing to use a public-school district's per-capita income and the operating budget per student in private schools as the measures of need.

At last week's meeting, representatives of such national groups as the National Parent-Teacher Association, the National School Boards Association, and the Council of Chief State School Officers, expressed concern that too much money will go to private schools under this system.

Ineligible Schools

Schools that have failed to comply with the agency's inspection and notification rule will be ineligible for the program, epa officials said.

The rule requires schools to inspect for hazardous asbestos and to notify parents, teachers, and other school employees when easily powdered or crumbling asbestos is found.

Schools that the agency has fined for being out of compliance with the inspection and notification rule in the past will have the amount of that fine subtracted from any grant or loan that they receive.

After the school leaders said they feared that schools might not use qualified contractors for abatement activities, Ms. Vogt responded that the agency might condition the receipt of a grant or loan on the use of a qualified contractor, as described in the policy statement. That statement includes such requirements as: a list of references; evidence that the contractor has successfully completed training courses covering asbestos abatement; proof that the contractor's employees have had instruction on the dangers of asbestos exposure, on the use of respirators, and on decontamination; and a list of prior contracts to clean up asbestos.

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