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E.P.A. Shifts Stance on Asbestos Rule Again

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Washington--The Environmental Protection Agency has once again shifted its position on the regulation of asbestos, deciding to hold off transferring responsibility for enforcement to two other federal agencies until the legal ramifications of such a transfer have been studied in detail.

In an internal memorandum, acting deputy administrator A. James Barnes this month ordered his staff to halt work on the proposal, saying that there are "a number of legal and policy issues" that need to be examined.

"Further action on the asbestos referral will not take place" until those issues are resolved, the epa administrator, Lee M. Thomas, wrote in a March 8 letter to a Michigan Congressman.

Series of Shifts

The move is the latest in a series of policy shifts within the epa on the questions of who is responsible for overseeing asbestos regulations and to what extent and how potentially dangerous asbestos should be removed from schools and other buildings.

In February, after waiting for six months for--and still not receiving--approval from the Office of Management and Budget to ban certain uses of asbestos and to introduce a 10-year phase-out of the manufacturing of the substance, the epa withdrew its proposed regulations.

In addition, acting under what some critics claim is an "unduly restrictive reading" of Section 9 of the Toxic Substances Control Act (tsca), the agency decided to turn over the responsibility for overseeing asbestos regulations to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

That decision sparked sharp criticism from Representative John D. Dingell, Democrat of Michigan and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations.

In a letter to Mr. Thomas, Representative Dingell asked that any transfer of responsibilities be suspended until his panel had reviewed the matter.

Representative Dingell also argued that such a transfer would "irreparably undermine epa's ability to regulate chemicals which present an unreasonable risk to health or the environment."

'Flip-Flopping' Examined

Representative Dingell's subcommittee is now investigating "how the flip-flopping in early February came to occur, the influence of omb on the agency's decision to refer asbestos to the other agencies in early February, and the implications of the overall ability of epa to regulate any kind of substance in the future," according to a member of the subcommittee staff.--sr

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