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Pressure To Extend Asbestos Deadline Heeded by Congress

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WASHINGTON--School officials who were concerned that they would not be able to meet the first deadline of the federal asbestos law this fall have been given a Congressional reprieve.

After months of intensive lobbying by education groups, the Congress voted in June to allow schools that present valid causes for deferral to complete their asbestos inspections and submit the required management plans to their states by May 9, 1989, rather than the original date of Oct. 12.

The revised deadline was signed into law by President Reagan in July.

Groups representing school-board members and administrators had argued since regulations for the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act of 1986 were published that a shortage of qualified consultants in the field and districts' fiscal constraints might prevent many schools from meeting the measure's tight deadline schedule.

All public and private schools were to have completed their inspections for asbestos by Oct. 12, and to have submitted plans for managing the cancer-causing substance to state authorities by that date.

The new law allows school officials who believe they cannot meet this deadline to request a deferral from state officials by Oct. 12.

It does not, however, change the July 9, 1989, deadline for schools to begin implementing their management plans. And it includes stronger safety requirements to protect school workers who may come into contact with asbestos.

"The schools that get an exemption will have to prove that they need it,'' said Jon Shure, press secretary to Representative James J. Florio, Democrat of New Jersey. "It seemed like a fair way of handling the situation.''

Mr. Florio was a sponsor of the original asbestos law and was a strong opponent of several proposed bills that would have granted extensions to all schools.

Observers predicted last week that the new law would enable schools to scrutinize the credentials and performance record of potential consultants more carefully, and ease what was projected to be a sharp escalation in consultants' fees as Oct. 12 drew nearer.

Deferral Procedure

In their requests to state authorities for extensions, school officials must explain why they will not be able to adhere to the deadline, provide documents to prove they have made a "good-faith'' effort to comply with the law, and give a schedule of steps they will take to meet the revised deadline of May 9. (See related story on this page.)

Before filing a request for a deferral, the officials must notify parent, teacher, and employee groups of their intent to do so. Public-school officials must also announce their proposed action at a public meeting of the school board.

State authorities are to notify schools of their decision to approve or deny within 30 days of receiving the request. If the request is incomplete, the state officials will give schools 15 days to provide additional information.

Officials at the Environmental Protection Agency, which is responsible for enforcing the asbestos law, say they have not yet decided how they will penalize a school whose request for a deferral is denied after Oct. 12.

Schools Will Be Notified

Although the EPA has not developed a form for schools requesting deferrals, the National School Boards Association and the National Governors' Association have begun to develop such forms. Agency officials say that individual states will also develop their own.

In addition, the new law requires the EPA to place a notice in the Federal Register by Aug. 2 describing the deferral procedure, and to mail information about the extension process to all public and private schools later this month.

'A Reasonable Balance'

The bill approved by the Congress this summer represented a compromise reached by different groups within the education lobby, which had been split on the issue.

On one side, the school-board and administrators' groups were backing bills that would have granted extensions of up to 18 months for all schools.

On the other, organizations such as the National Education Association, the Service Employees International Union, and the National Congress of Parents and Teachers were opposed to proposals granting blanket deferrals.

The compromise, many said last week, seems to have left all parties satisfied.

"It's a reasonable balance between the two positions,'' said Kathleen Skrabut, a lobbyist for the S.E.I.U., which represents many school janitors. "What [the prior-notification requirement] ensures is some public access and input into schools' clean-up of asbestos.''

Ms. Skrabut said that her organization was particularly pleased with the additional worker-protection clauses that were drafted into the new law.

Under the provisions, schools that have not had their management plans approved by state authorities by Oct. 12 may conduct only emergency repairs on their buildings.

Schools may begin renovations or asbestos-removal activities only if an inspection that complies with requirements outlined in the 1986 law has been completed or if they are receiving a federal grant under the Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Act.

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