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Settlement Talks May Produce New Rules on Asbestos

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Washington--Negotiations that could lead to stricter federal controls on asbestos in school buildings are scheduled to begin this week, as the Environmental Protection Agency and a union representing school-maintenance employees attempt to settle a lawsuit over the issue.

The agreement to meet reflects a new "sense of urgency" about the need to clean up cancer-causing asbestos in the nation's schools and to ensure that the job is done safely, said William K. Borwegen, health and safety director of the Service Employees International Union.

In September 1984, the union filed suit against the epa in federal court, seeking regulations that would require the removal of asbestos from the schools. Earlier, the agency had failed to act on a petition by the seiu to speed up its rule-making process.

Currently, public- and private-school officials must inspect their buildings for asbestos and notify parents and employees if the substance is found. But the agency's 1982 regulations require no further action to abate the hazard.

Amid reports of inaction or haphazard asbestos-removal procedures in many districts, the epa has come under increasing pressure from members of Congress, unions, and industry groups to write more detailed regulations.

In response, John A. Moore, epa's assistant administrator for pesticides and toxic substances, recently announced that a "work group" has been convened to consider whether districts should be required to re-inspect schools periodically where asbestos has been found and to draw up abatement plans that would be "publicly available."

This effort is on "a very tight schedule" and a regulatory proposal should be ready by "this spring," Mr. Moore wrote in an Oct. 25 letter to Representative James J. Florio, Democrat of New Jersey, who has been a frequent critic of the epa's "Asbestos in the Schools" program.

Prospects for Settlement

Asked about the agency's settlement talks with the seiu, Susan Vogt, director of the federal agency's asbestos-action program, declined to comment on what, if any, proposal the epa will make. Ms. Vogt said she had "no idea" about prospects for a resolution of the suit and described the negotiation as one of many "low-staff-level meetings" between the two parties.

Both sides "would like to see some movement on this issue," Ms. Vogt said.

"We've always believed our goals are the same," she added. "I don't think seiu wants epa to spend its time involved in legal briefs when we could be [working to control the asbestos hazard]. What an incredible waste of time."

Mr. Borwegen confirmed that his union would like to speed up the case. Conditions may favor a settlement, he added, because a public trial would expose the Reagan Administration to charges of regulatory foot-dragging.

"That's what's really put the fear of God into them," said Mr. Borwegen. "They'd be publicly embarrassed."

Among those who would probably be called to testify in such a trial, the union official said, are the former epa administrator, William D. Ruckelshaus, and David A. Stockman, former director of the Office of Management and Budget. That office has frequently been accused of impeding the epa's asbestos-control efforts.

An added impetus for new regulations, according to Mr. Borwegen, is Mr. Florio's recent disclosure of internal epa documents citing the widespread use of unsafe procedures in school asbestos-removal projects. (See Education Week, Nov. 27, 1985.)

These findings suggest, Mr. Borwegen said, that "the current epa asbestos program may be killing more people than it's saving."

New Agency Moves

In his letter to Representative 8Florio, Mr. Moore said the agency is considering new training requirements for asbestos-abatement contractors, aimed at protecting building occupants from the dispersal of the hazardous fibers. Long-term exposure to small amounts of asbestos has been linked to asbestosis, a chronic lung impairment, and several forms of cancer.

Only in federally funded projects for removing or encapsulating asbestos are supervisors now required to receive epa-approved training, Ms. Vogt said.

In the past year, the agency has set up five "Regional Asbestos Information and Training Centers," which are located at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, the University of Kansas in Kansas City, Tufts University in Boston, the University of Illinois in Chicago, and the University of California at Berkeley and Los Angeles.

Ms. Vogt added that the agency hopes to resolve another contentious regulatory issue--whether it will ban the use of asbestos in many consumer and industrial products--"in the next couple of months."

In a surprise move last year, the agency delayed issuing such a rule, raising the question of whether the matter should be left to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or the Consumer Product Safety Commission. In a regulation now "in the final stages of review," according to Ms. Vogt, the epa appears likely to retain at least some jurisdiction.

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