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E.P.A. Auditors Cite 'Lax Procedures' in Asbestos Removal

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Washington--Auditors in the Environmental Protection Agency have uncovered "a pattern of lax inspection and enforcement procedures" in the agency's program to encourage the removal of asbestos from schools, the chairman of a House Commerce subcommittee has charged.

According to Representative James J. Florio, Democrat of New Jersey and chairman of the House Subcommittee on Transportation and Tourism, the reports by inspectors general in three of epa's regional offices represent "a devastating indictment" of the six-year-old "Asbestos in Schools" program. Representative Florio released copies of the reports here on Nov. 16.

David Ryan, a spokesman for the federal agency, disputed Representative Florio's charges last week, saying that they "were diverting attention from the real progress made by the epa"

"Although some problems are inevitable, the program to control asbestos in schools is working well," Mr. Ryan said. "The substantive findings raised in the report have already been addressed."

Asbestos Regulation

In 1982, the epa published regulations requiring public- and private-school officials to inspect their buildings for friable, or easily crumbling, asbestos, which has been linked to certain cancers and respiratory diseases. If the substance is found, school officials need only to notify parents and employees of its presence.

Among the auditors' major findings were that epa officials had failed to distribute a key guidance document that describes both the technique to be used for sampling for asbestos, as required by the 1982 regulation, and the preferred method for analyzing such samples. The document, commonly referred to as "the black book," was issued in 1980 and replaced in 1983 by a document known as "the blue book."

According to the auditors, many school officials and even some regional epa officials were never made aware of the sampling technique because the document was not widely distributed.

"Incorrect sampling could result in incorrect decisions, ... [which] would lead either to costly, time-consuming, and unnecessary corrective action or no action for potentially hazardous situations," one auditor noted in his report.

Another concluded that, because they were uninformed about the method, the epa's own inspectors had used improper sampling techniques in more than 2,600 private schools in Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

Other Findings

In addition, an auditor faulted epa officials in one region for not attempting to identify the school districts likely to be in noncompliance with the asbestos rule and choosing instead to select sites randomly for compliance investigations.

The auditor also concluded that, "based on past performance, it will take epa inspectors approximately 36 years to inspect the remaining districts in the region."

Another auditor noted excessive delays in notifying school districts that they had been found to be in noncompliance. The auditor found that it took the epa up to 226 days to notify some districts of violations of the regulations.

"I am greatly concerned about8epa's policy regarding the critical issue of asbestos in our nation's schools," said Representative Florio in a Nov. 14 letter to Lee M. Thomas, the agency's administrator. "I unfortunately see no alternative but to call for forceful Congressional action to help protect our nation's schoolchildren and ensure the safety of all school employees."

The auditors' reports covered compliance with the asbestos regulations in the following states: Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

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