Report Calls for Government Guidance To Aid Schools in Asbestos Removal
Washington--School-district officials need more federal and state guidance to help them cope with potentially dangerous asbestos in their schools, says the General Accounting Office in a new report on the problem.
The report, "School District Officials Face Problems in Dealing With Asbestos in Their Schools," describes how 36 districts in 12 states have worked to counter asbestos-related problems.
The gao found that, lacking expertise themselves, most of the 36 school districts have been turning to contractors and consultants for help with asbestos. In the past, experts have voiced concerns about the quality of such consultants, who may have a large financial stake in the decisions that they advise schools to make.
The gao, the investigative arm of the Congress, undertook the study at the request of Representative Edward P. Boland, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding for the epa
Expertise, Funding Problems
According to the report, "the type and amount of expertise" available from the epa and state governments varies and in many cases "is quite limited."
"School districts also experienced considerable problems in finding the necessary expertise in the private sector," the gao found.
Schools have experienced problems in finding the necessary money as well. The epa reported last week that the amount requested by states for their schools under a federal program of grants and loans for asbestos abatement far exceeds the $50 million available in fiscal 1985.
According to the gao report, more than half of the 4,062 schools in the 36 districts surveyed contained crumbling or easily powdered asbestos prior to any abatement activity. Twenty districts reported a total of 1,429 schools that still contained friable asbestos as of Oct. 30, 1984.
Potentially dangerous asbestos materials were found throughout school buildings, including areas where students and teachers congregate. Wrapped pipe insulation was the most common source of asbestos, according to school officials. The second most common source was material sprayed on walls and ceilings.
$51 Million Spent
By October 1984, the districts had spent more than $51 million tackling asbestos problems and reported plans to spend $289 million more.
Most frequently, school officials removed crumbling or easily pow-dered asbestos from their buildings. The second most common choice was to enclose the asbestos behind a sealant--a process known as encapsulation. The districts' actions thus exceeded the epa's regulations, which require schools to identify asbestos and to inform parents and employees when it is found, but do not require abatement.
Rely on Contractors
Most of the districts had relied on consultants and contractors to make decisions about asbestos and to do the actual abatement work. Twenty-eight of the 36 school districts said they relied on consultants to help them with asbestos-related problems. And 23 districts indicated that they followed the consultants' recommendations 91 to 100 percent of the time.
School-district officials also reported that 91 percent of the money spent on asbestos-related activities to date went to consultants and contractors. In 33 of the 36 districts, contractors were used to perform 89 percent of all removals, 50 percent of all encapsulations, and 57 percent of all enclosures, the gao found.
However, a dozen districts said they were having trouble finding qualified consultants to help them, and 11 were having trouble identifying qualified contractors. While most district officials surveyed were satisfied with the work done by consultants and contractors, state officials and regional epa officials were less so.
For example, state officials believed that only 34 percent of the abatement work performed by contractors was adequately done; that 14 percent was inadequately done; and that they had no basis for judging 52 percent of the work. Regional epa officials believed that 50 percent of the work was adequately done; that 18 percent was inadequately done; and that they had no basis for judging 32 percent of the work.
epa officials also believed that only 28 percent of the abatement activities taken were the most appropriate; 13 percent were not the most appropriate; and that they had no basis for judging 59 percent of the decisions.
The gao concluded that "no one really knows" whether the abatement actions selected by the 36 school districts were "appropriate" or whether they were performed "adequately."
To provide school-district officials with more assistance in making decisions regarding asbestos, theinued on Page XX
G.A.O. Completes Asbestos Report
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gao said that local, state, and epa officials interviewed for the study recommended:
State certification programs for asbestos contractors and consultants;
The creation of an independent governmental unit, with a cadre of trained inspectors, to monitor and inspect abatement actions;
The provision of better technical guidance and assistance to school districts, including more information about asbestos hazards and remedies;
The establishment of a definitive standard to identify when asbestos is hazardous enough to be abated (a standard that the epa has refused to provide in the past); and
An increase in federal funds for abatement activities.
The epa is currently developing a model state program for certifying contractors and contractors' employees, as well as guidelines for districts to use in determining a contractor's ability to abate asbestos hazards. However, the program will not certify consultants and will not be mandatory for states.
The agency is also updating its technical-assistance documents about asbestos-related problems. Some 50 percent of the epa's regional staffs, 70 percent of school-district officials, and 85 percent of state officials surveyed did not believe that those documents provide sufficient information in and of themselves to make decisions about asbestos problems.
The epa is also increasing its technical-assistance staff from 10 in fiscal 1984 to 23 in fiscal 1985 and is increasing its financial commitment to the American Association of Retired Persons, which will hire and train technical advisers, from $500,000 in fiscal 1984 to $1 million in fiscal 1985.
In addition, the agency has established three information and training centers about asbestos--at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Tufts University, and the University of Kansas. The centers will provide courses for asbestos-abatement workers, for those who must make policy decisions about asbestos, and for the general public.
Meanwhile, the agency is sorting through some 1,090 applications for the asbestos-abatement funds available under the Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Act, which was passed by the Congress last year.
According to Michael M. Stahl, who is running the loan and grant program, the applications describe some 7,900 individual abatement projects in 4,800 schools.
Applications are being divided into six categories, based on the degree of hazard posed by the asbestos in the school buildings, Mr. Stahl said. In the top hazard category alone, which includes between 1,100 and 1,200 abatement projects, the cost of the abatement work exceeds $70 million.
Mr. Stahl said the agency now is verifying the data in the applications and is "not close" to having a total dollar figure for the amount of money requested by schools.
The agency has not yet decided whether it will ask the Congress for additional money under the law, he said. The Congress and President Reagan authorized the expenditure of $600 million over seven years for grants and loans to help schools abate asbestos problems.
The new program was intended to cover half of the $1.2 billion that the federal government had anticipated asbestos-abatement projects in schools would cost nationwide. That figure has now increased to about $3 billion, according to the most recent epa estimates.
Between April 15 and May 3, members of the epa's regional offices will conduct on-site inspections of projects described in the applications, especially those in the top hazard category, Mr. Stahl said. He added that if a school is not inspected, "it doesn't mean they're not getting funded."
The agency hopes to announce the awards by June 6.