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Asbestos-Abatement Rules Too Lax, Groups Charge

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Washington--The Environmental Protection Agency's proposed regulations for asbestos abatement in schools are too lax to ensure that students and employees will be protected from the cancer-causing material, critics have told agency officials and members of a House panel.

At a two-day public hearing held by the epa and in a meeting of the House Subcommittee on Environment, Energy, and Natural Resources, spokesmen for public-employee unions and other groups charged last month that the rules do not offer districts enough guidance to determine whether their facilities are unsafe and, if so, what steps they should take to address the problem.

In addition, they harshly criticized a provision that would permit districts to give equal weight to cost and health factors in deciding on abatement methods.

The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act of 1986 requires the epa to issue new rules for asbestos management in schools by next month. The agency's proposal, released in April, would mandate that all districts inspect their buildings and develop management plans by October 1988; districts would have to implement those plans by July 1989.

At the epa hearing, John F. Welch, president of the Safe Buildings Alliance, an association of building-product manufacturers, testified that the proposed regulations do not adequately define what level of exposure to asbestos would pose a risk.

Scott Strauss, a lawyer for the Service Employees International Union, said his group strongly opposed the provision that would allow districts to balance health concerns and cost considerations.

"Under the proposed regulation, we can look forward to an era in which schools, with the epa's blessing, will be able to avoid undertaking abatement projects necessary to protect the health of schoolchildren, workers, and teachers, because they want to spend the money on far less urgent needs," Mr. Strauss said.

"For example, under epa's proposed rule schoolchildren and employees could be forced to learn and work in a classroom contaminated by asbestos fibers," he added, "while the school board defers cleanup in favor of new seats in the auditorium."

Michael M. Stahl, chief of the school-assistance section of the epa's office of pesticides and toxic substances, said last week in an interview that the agency would revise the regulations to reflect issues raised at the hearings and in the 170 comments it has received on the subject.

He noted that, because the evidence is inconclusive, the final rules would not set standards for exposure to airborne asbestos particles.--ef

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