Questions Linger On Quality of Asbestos Efforts
Despite a tight deadline and a shortage of funds, most schools--including the vast majority of public schools--have had their buildings inspected for asbestos and have submitted management plans to state authorities by May 9 as required by the Congress, officials involved in the process said last week.
But the vast and complicated enforcement machinery set up under the federal law has bogged down at the state level, where much of the oversight responsibility was placed, a wide variety of public officials, educators, and asbestos experts agreed in interviews.
State officials engulfed by the paperwork submitted by schools have been unable to even cursorily check its quality, answer technical questions, or meet their own deadlines, the observers said. One called the states' performance "an atrocity."
The bottleneck raises doubts, they said, about the ability of the states and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to monitor schools' management plans closely enough to spot potential flaws.
This is especially worrisome because school officials are legally required by the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act to follow their management plans, the observers said.
"You have school districts with a false sense of security," said William "Chip" D' Angelo, president of Kaselaan and D'Angelo, one the nation's largest asbestos-consulting firms. "Yet no one is really capable of checking out the quality of that work."
More stringent than any previous federal asbestos law, the 1986 measure originally required all public and private schools to inspect their buildings for both friable and nonfriable asbestos and to submit management plans to state authorities by last October. Schools were only allowed to hire consultants that had passed an epa-accredited course.
After education groups complained that this deadline was too tight and that consultants were in short supply, the Congress allowed schools that had made a good-faith effort to comply with the law to apply for a deferral in October, giving them until May 9 to submit a management plan.
Despite the delay, schools were still required to begin implementing their plans by this July.
Statistics released by the agency earlier this year indicated that of the 79 percent of all schools that met the initial Oct. 12 deadline, about half submitted plans and half requested deferrals. Most schools that missed the deadline were private institutions. (See Education Week, March 29, 1989.)
The agency does not expect to release information about schools' compliance with this month's deadline until later this year. But state officials questioned last week said they believed that most public schools had met the requirement.
The law required states to play a large role in ensuring that schools met the epa's standards. The states were charged with developing their own accreditation programs for consultants by this July, setting standards at least as stringent as the epa guidelines.
But to date, only six states have adopted full accreditation programs, and agency officials say the law does not outline how states would be penalized if they do not adopt their own standards.
States were also expected, although not required, to review management plans, and had up to 90 days after their receipt to disallow them.
Interviews with state officials, however, indicate that due to a shortage of both staff and money, many states have given up all pretense of making the 90-day deadline. Others have decided either to review no plans or to study only a small fraction of the documents submitted.
In New York, for instance, state officials said that they had asked schools to submit only a one-page summary of their management plans, which typically run more than 150 pages each.
They said that schools that wished to have their plan reviewed more thoroughly would be able to attend state-sponsored workshops this summer.
"In Rhode Island, it might be manageable to review all the plans," said Mae Timer, superintendent of the asbestos unit in the New York department of education. "But in New York State, we have 6,000 to 7,000 school buildings."
In Arizona, where the equivalent of one full-time worker is reviewing the plans, officials have decided to review only 10 percent of any district's management plans. The reviewers said they were still working on some October submissions.
"It was an atrocity at the state level," said W. David Kimbrell, president and chief executive officer of Hall-Kimbrell, a national asbestos-consulting firm. "The states had an obligation to roll up their sleeves and treat it like an emergency."
The consultant also said that in some states, officials were not familiar with the law's provisions and sometimes gave out misleading information.
In one state, he said, "there was constant conflict" because officials were unable to negotiate a maze of federal, state, and local laws concerning asbestos.
Some also questioned last week whether the epa will have enough personnel to thoroughly review the plans when its regional asbestos experts begin to check individual schools as part of the federal enforcement effort.
According to the agency, each of its 10 regional offices has one lead asbestos person, aided by up to five additional professional staff members. The epa also plans to enlist 45 volunteers with building backgrounds to conduct these reviews.
Although most state and school officials said they felt the agency did a good job in informing them about the law's requirements, some said that the epa was not as successful in explaining the law's more difficult points.
"It's been very hard to get interpretations from the epa," said Emily Allen, supervisor of the asbestos program in the Oklahoma department of health. "It's like, 'We said it, now let's try to figure out what it means,"' she said.
Many Plans Rejected
Because many states have not been able to thoroughly review the plans, schools have become, by default, even more dependent on the advice of their independent asbestos consultants, those interviewed last week noted.
This could be especially problematic, they said, because school officials charged with overseeing the asbestos program are frequently not experts, and would not necessarily have the expertise to challenge a consultant's counsel.
At the same time, many questions have been raised about the quality of training for asbestos consultants.
As a way of meeting the expected demand for consultants, the regulations allowed anyone with a high-school diploma who passed a three-day class to become an accredited inspector. Inspectors who pass an additional two-day class can become a management-planner. (See Education Week, Sept. 28, 1988.)
Such concerns about quality, said some asbestos experts, appear to be well founded. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some of the work performed to date has not been of the highest quality.
In some states, including Arizona, Illinois, and North Carolina, officials said they had disallowed at least half of the management plans reviewed. Although most were turned down for minor flaws, such as a missing signature, some indicated that the plans lacked such important items as a list of all the friable asbestos in a building.
Even some technically flawless plans, said some officials, were of poor quality.
"I accepted them, I approved them, but I didn't think they were that good," said Gerald Pevey, the coordinator of the state asbestos program within the Mississippi department of education.
'Better State of the Art'
A common problem, said some asbestos experts, was that many consultants did not bother to tailor the possible 'response actions' required by the law for each building. In addition, some did not rank which actions should receive the highest priority.
"They gave the school no more information than ahera did," said Brian W. Christopher, director of the Alice Hamilton OccupationalHealth Center, about some management plans he has reviewed. "What schools were supposed to have, what they paid for, was an accredited management planner."
Bernard F. Rafferty, the ahera compliance officer for the Philadelphia school district, said that there was a noticeable difference between the performance of experienced and inexperienced consultants in his district's buildings. He said that the more novice inspectors were more likely to miss asbestos-containing materials than were the experienced consultants.
Even so, he and other officials argued last week, the cumbersome burdens of the complicated law have also produced at least some benefits as well.
"We were always reacting," said Mr. Rafferty. "We now have enough information so that we won't always be reacting to a phone call. Today, I think there is better state-of-the-art work."