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House Committee Says O.M.B. Interfered With Asbestos Rules

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Washington--The Office of Management and Budget illegally coerced the Environmental Protection Agency late last year to scuttle proposed rules that would have banned most uses of asbestos, according to a new Congressional report.

The report was issued this month by the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations. It also alleges that officials in the budget office, in "an unlawful abuse of power," pressured A. James Barnes, deputy administrator of the epa, during a meeting last Dec. 27 to transfer rule-making authority over asbestos to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The attempt by the epa to transfer its rule-making authority to the other two agencies has been characterized by unions representing public-school employees as a tactic by the Reagan Administration to avoid strenghthening rules governing asbestos abatement in the nation's schools. Asbestos, a mineral now known to cause cancer, was widely used in school-construction materials until the mid-1960's.

Regulations Delayed

About one month after the alleged meeting, Mr. Barnes abruptly announced that his agency was delaying its plan to ban the importation and mining of asbestos and its use in certain products, adding that the epa was required by a little-known provision in a federal law to transfer its regulatory authority over the matter to the two federal agencies.

A few weeks later, Mr. Barnes notified the House committee's chairman that he had changed his mind and was delaying the planned transfer pending a thorough review of the legal and policy issues involved. (See Education Week, March 27, 1985.)

Representative John D. Dingell, Democrat of Michigan and the panel's chairman, ordered an investigation shortly thereafter to exam4ine the circumstances surrounding the abrupt shift in epa policy.

According to the House report, Mr. Barnes based his decision to transfer asbestos regulation to osha and the consumer commission on a legal memorandum from omb that misinterpreted the Toxic Substances Control Act, the 1976 law under which the regulations were being issued.

The report contends that Mr. Barnes did not share a copy of the three-page legal memo with epa lawyers and asbestos experts--who had earlier considered and rejected such a narrow interpretation of the toxic-substances act--thus denying them an opportunity to protest the move.

Furthermore, the report charges, the epa deputy administrator abused his authority over the agency's legal office by ordering it to prepare a legal justification for the policy shift after the decision had already been made, and then citing the document at the press conference called to announce the decision.

Trust Breached

"Through these actions, James Barnes demoralized his staff, embarrassed his agency, and breached the trust invested in him by the American public to faithfully administer the nation's environmental laws," the committee charges in the report.

The panel adds that omb's "secret and heavy-handed interference" in the matter demonstrates how the office "sought to impose, behind closed doors, a discounting-of-lives approach which would severely restrict the federal government's ability to protect the American public against cancer-causing chemicals."

In a letter to Representative Dingell, Lee M. Thomas, administrator of the epa, said he continued to have full confidence in Mr. Barnes, adding that he rejected "the abusive allegations incorporated in this report."

Edwin L. Dale, an omb spokesman, said last week that the subcommittee "stretched the facts of the case to make it conform to their longstanding opposition to regulatory reform."

"Even the report makes clear that there were significant regulatory issues in this case that would not have been brought out but for omb review," Mr. Dale added.

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