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New Asbestos Regulations Seen Swamping District Officials' Time, Money, Efforts

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To oversee their compliance with the asbestos-control law passed by the Congress last fall, school officials in Rutherford, N.J., gave Patrick Fletcher a new responsibility. The elementary-school curriculum specialist became an asbestos expert.

Since that time, he has found that his added duty is almost a full-time job. In fact, he says, "I haven't done a stitch of work in curriculum for 8 to 10 weeks."

The problem has not only been one of assessing the district's needs and deciphering bureaucratic codes, but also of lining up the services of qualified contractors in the field.

Though schools in such highly industrialized states are in a better position than most to find certified consultants, even they may not be able to escape the expected market squeeze produced by the more stringent stipulations of the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act.

And over the next year, as all U.S. school districts are forced to begin the planning, inspection, and reporting that are the first steps toward compliance with the law, many are predicting that having a Patrick Fletcher on staff may become a necessity.

Already, there are signs of confusion. With the Environmental Protection Agency due to complete last Saturday its regulations governing the law's implementation, many district officials interviewed by Education Week remained unaware that having inspected their schools for asbestos under the previous federal law did not exempt them from meeting the new requirements.

And officials in some small, rural districts were totally unfamiliar with the 1986 act's provisions.

Passed by the Congress to produce better regulatory oversight by the epa and greater compliance by school districts, the new law requires that districts and private schools inspect all of their buildings for asbestos by next October--and that they remove, contain, or monitor the cancer-causing material when it is found.

The prior law had required schools only to inspect for the most serious asbestos hazards and to notify employees and parents when it was detected.

Nearly all of the nation's 107,500 school buildings will be affected by the new law.

The epa estimates that one-third of all schools contain friable, or crumbling, asbestos that requires immediate attention. But because asbestos is found in more than 300 common building products, nearly every school, according to the agency, houses some material containing nonfriable asbestos.

Under the new law, even this nonfriable asbestos will have to be noted and monitored.

Costly Effort Foreseen

Compliance with the law will require that districts expend considerable amounts of time, money, and effort, according to experts in the field.

The epa, for example, has estimated that meeting the law's requirements will cost districts a total of $3.2 billion. Others maintain that this estimate may be unrealistic, however, and some are putting the ultimate price tag as high as $30 billion.

Another problem, say the experts, may be meeting the tight deadlines imposed by the new law. Large districts may not be able to inspect all of their buildings by next October, they predict, and small rural districts may not be able to find enough certified specialists in their area to carry out the law's requirements.

Districts of all sizes will be hard-pressed to pay for the consultants that may be needed for compliance, and the expected shortage of qualified workers is likely to drive up fees--and district costs--even further.

"It's going to be difficult for school systems to implement these rules, no question about it," said Claudia Mansfield, a lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators.

The epa was expected to complete work on the regulations gov4erning the law last week and to publish them by the end of the month. The regulations will require districts to:

Inspect all schools for friable and nonfriable asbestos-containing material using personnel certified by the state and the epa

Develop management plans for each school building and submit these plans to state authorities for approval by next October;

Begin implementing their plans by July 1989; and

Monitor every six months the condition of asbestos left in place.

The new law also requires all governors to designate a state agency to oversee the program and to review management plans. The state must tell districts by Oct. 17 which office will be responsible for their management plans. It must also set state standards that are at least as stringent as the epa guidelines.

Too Little Time

Officials in large districts say that meeting the deadlines mandated by the law will be a formidable challenge. To inspect--and in many cases, reinspect--all their buildings by next October will require, they say, a herculean effort.

The Houston Independent School District, for example, must reinspect all of its buildings to comply with the law. The schools had been inspected in 1981, but no records were kept on the nonfriable asbestos found.

As a result, officials there say, it will take up to five months for several full-time inspectors to look for crumbling and nonfriable asbestos in buildings on the district's 235 campuses.

"Quite frankly, it's going to take a very substantial effort to identify all the asbestos in the pipe [covering]," said James Heldt, head of the district's risk-management division.

Ed Kealy, a lobbyist for the National School Boards Association, said the belief is widespread among districts that deadlines for ahera--the new law's acronym--are unrealistic.

"There are a lot of ways to phase in this process more reasonably," he said. "What is the point of creating a stampede like that?"

But Congressional authorities say past experience proves such deadlines are necessary. They point to the high noncompliance rate of districts in fulfilling the requirements of the less onerous 1982 law that mandated inspections only for friable asbestos by June 1983.

According to an epa report, only 11 percent of all districts had fulfilled all aspects of the Toxic Substances Control Act by January 1984, six months after the deadline. And Representative James Florio of New Jersey, one of the principal sponsors of the new ahera, has said he is unwilling to support legislation that would extend its deadlines.

Not Enough Experts

But for some districts, the biggest problem may simply be locating accredited consultants who can inspect their buildings and create management plans.

Large urban districts can often afford to have asbestos experts in their own maintenance departments. But in smaller districts, the superintendent is frequently the de facto asbestos expert, and will be more dependent on the advice of outside8consultants.

So far, the epa has accredited nearly 40 centers to train the inspectors, planners, and contractors whose services are required by the law. But even the agency admits that a short supply of properly trained personnel may create a "tight" market for districts.

And at this point, no one knows for sure how many consultants will be needed or how the increased demand will affect quality.

Mr. Kealy of the nsba describes the personnel dilemma as a "bottleneck in the making." Districts will be forced to compete for the highly skilled consultants, he predicted.

"What about the smaller districts in rural areas?" he said. " How do they get that done?"

Others suggest that the requirements for becoming an accredited consultant are too lax. Under the proposed regulations, for example, any high-school graduate who has completed a three-day course accredited by the epa can become an inspector.

"You can do anything you want, but a three-day course isn't adequate," said Paul Schur, an asbestos expert in the Connecticut Department of Health. "That won't be enough to know that you're finding all of the asbestos."

Such quality considerations are crucial not only from a liability standpoint, most experts note, but also for health reasons.

Researchers have found that poorly performed removal projects often pose a greater health risk than leaving asbestos in place. And an epa report released last spring foundthat up to 75 percent of school abatement projects were not performed effectively.

'Letting a Monster Loose'

But the information needed to make wise hiring decisions too often eludes school districts. And, according to William K. Borwegen, an occupational-safety and health-program coordinator for the Service Employees International Union, the new law may not help the situation, but may, in fact, have inadvertently "let a monster loose."

"People are gearing up to make a lot of money out of ignorant school districts," he said.

To combat this potential problem, the epa plans to send out a mailing to districts later this fall that will include, in addition to a copy of the final rules, information on agency-accredited courses and how to contact a regional epa official for further information on hiring outside personnel.

Before the end of the year, the agency will send districts another document that explains more fully their obligations under the new law and gives them further guidance on how to ensure that they obtain quality work.

Most guidance, however, will have to come from the states, according to observers. And they note that while some states, such as Illinois, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Maryland, have long been active on this issue, others have done very little.

School districts in the less active states, they say, may have a more difficult time learning about their new obligations.

Costly to Implement

Though the consultants' fees paid out over the next year may be substantial, most observers say the full price of ahera compliance will not be known until removal or abatement costs are factored in. And for some districts, that final price tag could be devastating, they say.

In Baltimore County, for example, officials estimate that they will have to spend nearly $7 million through 1992 to implement the plan. And that estimate, they note, does not include the cost of removing or containing the cancer-causing material.

In Dallas, officials say the cost of complying with the new regulations will be at least $600,000 0 alone. And they, like district leaders elsewhere, say the money will have to be siphoned from the budgets for other important functions.

"We're having enough trouble keeping a roof over our classrooms," said Charles Campbell, a superintendent in Simpson County, Ky., when asked about the cost of asbestos inspections.

Investment of Time

In addition to money, districts may feel the pinch of the new regulations in staff time. They may find it necessary to have school employees present to oversee all stages of an asbestos project.

JoAnne Miller, a member of the San Francisco Unified School District's school board, says her system learned this the hard way: Asbestos removed from one district building several years ago was assumed to have been properly disposed--until it was found bagged in a nearby backyard.

"The work has to be constantly watched over by people in the district," Ms. Miller stressed.

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