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New Report Criticizes E.P.A. Handling of School Asbestos Program

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Washington--The Environmental Protection Agency has poorly managed the federal grant and loan program for schools performing asbestos work, resulting in a loss of funds for the agency and the program's intended beneficiaries, the epa's office of the inspector general charges in a new report.

The epa does not ensure that grants and loans are awarded to the neediest schools, the report says, and the inefficiency of its loan-repayment schedule has cost it an estimated $1.5 million.

And because the agency opposed the use of federal funds to pay for school asbestos projects during the Reagan Administration, the auditors point out, the agency has not tapped all possible funding sources for the asbestos program. That failure, the report says, has cost schools at least $8 million in loans and grants.

Since 1985, the agency has awarded a total of $201.8 million to more than 1,500 schools under the provisions of the Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Act. Less than one in six project applications were funded between 1985 and 1988.

This is not the first time the ashaa program has been subject to a critical review. Two years ago, an internal audit by the agency found that nearly one-ninth of the money distributed in 1985 and 1986 went to projects rated as less than critical. Since then, the agency has claimed that it has granted awards only to schools with the most serious problems in abating the cancer-causing substance.

Management Undermined
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The new report, however, suggests that serious administrative problems still remain. It also suggests that states are not doing all they should to comply with the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, adopted in 1986.

That law required schools to inspect for the presence of asbestos on their premises and submit management plans to state officials by July 1989.

Many observers involved in the process believe the vast enforcement machinery set up under the law has bogged down at the state level. (See Education Week, May 31, 1989.)

The epa has never sought federal money for the Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Act, arguing that asbestos abatement is a state and local responsibility. Since 1985, however, the Congress has annually approved at least $40 million for the program.

This year, the agency received $45 million for ashaa. The Senate has approved a bill that contains $52 million for ashaa for fiscal year 1990, $4.5 million more than the amount contained in a budget measure approved by the House.

According to the report, the agency's reluctance to ask for federal money for ashaa has undermined the program's management. Because the agency does not solicit grant applications until the money has been appropriated, the report explains, there has been, in some years, insufficient time to review new applications before the Congressionally mandated date to distribute the funds expired.

As a result, the epa in 1987 and 1988 gave grants and loans to lower-ranking projects that had not received money in previous funding cycles, the report says. If the agency had solicited new applications and funded more critical projects, the audit found, it could have abated an additional 2.2 million exposure hours.

The report also calls on the agency to ask the Congress to appropriate the nearly $8 million that has accumulated in the Asbestos Trust Fund. The trust, which was created by the 1986 law, contains schools' ashaa loan repayments. Money in the trust is supposed to be given to needy schools, but the law requires that the Congress first authorize its use.

Although the agency has never asked the Congress to appropriate the money in the trust fund, the epa indicated in a written response to a draft copy of the audit that this policy was under review.

Repayments Lagging

The report also concludes that the agency gives schools an "inordinate amount of time" to begin some loan repayments. The epa currently gives loan recipients a two-year grace period after the loan is awarded.

If recipients were required to begin repayments within six months after the completion of the abatement work, according to the auditors, the agency could have returned an additional $1.5 million to the trust by this December and an additional $700,000 every year thereafter.

The audit also concluded that the state of Pennsylvania was not complying with the 1986 law. It found that the state was not reviewing schools' management plans and had not established a certification program for asbestos workers. As a result of the audit, the report says, the state has agreed to hire more personnel to review the plans. (See Education Week, March 29, 1989.)

"We believe that the review problem in Pennsylvania may be indicative of other states across the country," the report says. It recommends that the agency consider withholding funds from states that refuse to comply with the law.

Under the 1986 law, states were expected, although not required, to review management plans, and had up to 90 days after their receipt to disallow them. States were required, however, to develop their own accreditation programs for asbestos consultants by July of this year.

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