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1 in 5 Schools Miss Asbestos Deadline; Could Face Fines

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Washington--Schools could be fined up to $5,000 for not meeting the first deadline of the federal asbestos law, according to a policy statement issued last week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Agency officials estimated that approximately 20 percent of all public and private schools missed the October 1988 deadline and could be fined.

Negligent schools, however, may be given an additional 60 days to comply with the law before being penalized, according to the policy statement.

The document outlines how the agency will enforce the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act of 1986. It required schools to inspect for asbestos and submit management plans to state officials by Oct. 12, 1988. Schools that could not meet the deadline were required to file a request for a deferral of up to seven months by the same date.

Although the 1986 law is the most stringent yet passed, many observers have questioned the agency's ability to enforce it, citing a history of inadequate federal efforts under previous asbestos laws.

The agency has about 30 staff members nationally assigned to the effort, and officials in a dozen states have pledged to join in enforcement activities. Epa officials said last week that they had no plans to expand their enforcement staff.

According to the document, schools that did not meet the first deadline--and schools that violate other parts of the law--could face fines ranging from $40 to $5,000.

Schools that despite repeated requests fail to comply could face a heavier financial penalty--a maximum fine of $5,000 per day. And asbestos professionals whom schools have hired to comply with the law could be fined up to $25,000 a day for serious violations, the statement notes.

Because the federal law prohibits the agency from issuing fines for most potential violations, the document says the epa will, for certain infractions, notify a state's governor and turn to the courts to prevent schools from carrying out possibly harmful activities. (See box on this page.)

Schools that do not obey the law will virtually always receive a "notice of noncompliance" from the agency, and will have at least 30 days to respond to the charges. Regional agency officials have also been encouraged to send out press releases about violations, in the hope that public pressure will force a school to comply.

The agency also plans to do "spot checks" on some schools, but has not indicated how it will target its visits.

Epa officials said forcing schools that did nothing by the October deadline to comply would be their top priority.

These schools will receive the noncompliance notification, and will have 60 days to provide documentation showing that they have met the first deadline's requirement for inspection and a management plan or sought a deferral. Schools that do not respond to the letter will then be fined.

But schools that submit management plans in response to the letter will not be fined, the document states.

Daniel Helfgott, an environmental-protection specialist in the agency's office of compliance monitoring, said schools that have a history of late compliance will be subject to heavier fines for any future infractions than schools that met the October deadline.

The first schools targeted for fines for a failure to respond to the epa's letter, the policy statement says, will be those with large enrollments or with previous violations of asbestos regulations.

When determining what fine to levy, federal officials will take into account the probability of damage resulting from a particular violation and the amount of asbestos affected by the violation, the document notes. A violation that is likely to cause harm and involves more than 3,000 square feet of asbestos-containing material may elicit the maximum fine.

Before assessing a fine, agency officials will also consider the school's culpability, its history of violations, its ability to pay, and its ability to continue or provide educational services, the document says.

It is unlikely, however, that most penalized schools will ever write out a check to the federal government.

According to the federal asbestos law, any money collected from a school must be used by that school to comply with the law. Any portion of the fine left unspent after compliance will be deposited in the U.S. Treasury Department's Asbestos Trust Fund, which will be used for loans and grants to other schools.

"We're not looking to balance the federal deficit with this statute," said Mr. Helfgott.

The policy paper also says schools will not be held liable for the illegal actions of asbestos consultants if they can document that they made a reasonable effort to assure that the consultants complied with the asbestos rule.

Although school employees who carry out asbestos-related activities are also subject to the heavier fine schedule for consultants, the policy document says that only those who "are responsible for an egregious and/or knowing or willful violation" will be penalized.

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