E.P.A. Warns 1,300 Districts of Asbestos Violations
WASHINGTON--The Environmental Protection Agency is warning 1,300 school districts nationwide that they could be found in violation of the federal asbestos law because the national asbestos-consulting firm they hired may have performed substandard work.
The letter, which was sent to 6,700 public and private schools last month, comes on the heels of a decision by the E.P.A. to consolidate 21 separate administrative complaints worth $5.8 million against Hall Kimbrell Environmental Services Inc., one of the largest asbestos-consulting firms in the country.
The agency alleges in its complaints that the firm, based in Lawrence, Kan., provided inadequate inspections and management plans to 21 districts or private schools in Michigan, Kansas, Iowa, California, Arizona, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Colorado. However, since the company provided an estimated $100 million worth of business to schools in 40 states, agency officials said it is prudent for all of the firm's school clients to determine if their asbestos work meets federal standards.
In a letter sent to schools this month, Hall-Kimbrell said it was willing to work with schools to improve their management plans.
Schools hired Hall-Kimbrell to perform activities required by the federal Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act of 1986, which is administered by the E.P.A.
Under the act, schools were required to inspect for asbestos and submit management plans to state authorities by October 1988, unless they requested a deferral until May 1989. All asbestos work was to be performed by workers who passed classes that were certified by the agency. Schools that did not meet the requirements, or did incomplete work, could be fined up to $5,000 a day.
"Schools paid money to Hall-Kimbrell thinking they would get a good, solid management plan," said Michael J. Walker, associate enforcement counsel in the agency's toxics litigation division. "Our inspections of their management plans indicate they are inadequate on several counts."
"We are not trying to push buttons of concern among schools, teachers, students, or parents [with this letter]," he continued. "However, schools are in potential danger of not being in compliance."
Schools 'Holding the Bag'
The consolidated complaint and the letter to schools are the latest in a series of government documents to offer evidence that many of the consultants schools hired to perform asbestos work lacked the training and experience to do a proper job.
This summer, in a major review of the program, the E.P.A. found that more than one-third of all schools complying with the law conducted "deficient" or "seriously deficient" inspections for the cancer-causing fiber. According to the report, 82 percent of the schools had at least one asbestos-containing material that had gone unidentified in an initial inspection. (See Education Week, Sept. 4, 1991 .)
In June, a General Accounting Office study found that the E.P.A.'S standards for such workers are too lenient, and that many school officials believe that their management plans are "only generally accurate." See Education Week, June 19, 1991 .) "It's unfortunate that schools again have to be left holding the bag for something beyond their control ," said David Byer, a lobbyist for the National School Boards Association.
"Most districts do not have a certified inspector on staff," he said. "As a result, they are left to the guises of these contractors."
Agency officials said they began to detect a pattern of poor work by Hall-Kimbrell in 1989. Common errors, they said, included not identifying suspected asbestos-containing material, such as wall board and hard plaster. A number of the inspections, they said, used improper sampling procedures.
The largest complaint, worth $4 million, was filed on behalf of work done for schools run by the Archdiocese of Detroit.
"The deficiencies that were noted were immediately begun to be ad~ dressed and are near completion," said Ned McGrath, a spokesman for the archdiocese.
Mr. McGrath said church authorities learned about the complaint at least 18 months ago. He would not say how much the archdiocese has paid another firm or firms to conduct the new asbestos work.
'Gobbledygook and Jargon'
To date, the agency has filed 125 administrative civil-penalty actions against 78 asbestos contractors. And while other complaints feature major regional players, this is the first combined suit against a large national firm, agency officials said.
Agency officials said that, although negotiations between the E.P.A. and Hail-Kimbrell currently are on hold, they are still hopeful they can come to an agreement with the firm before taking the cases before an E.P.A. administrative law judge. At a minimum, government lawyers said, the firm must pledge to provide new inspections and management plans to all its school clients.
In its letter to schools, the E.P.A. recommends that they seek new work free of charge from the firm. It also recommends that schools discuss possible legal action against the firm with their lawyers.
Otherwise, the letter said, schools would be wise to contract with another consulting company to perform the work as part of the mandatory re-inspection they must complete by July 9, 1992.
In its letter to schools, Hall-Kimbrell said, "As you know, AHERA and E.P.A.'S regulations are often ambiguous and, in the opinion of some, examples of bureaucratic gobbledygook and jargon that are difficult, if not impossible, to understand, much less administer properly."
The company also said it had started a hot line, (800) 828-3282, for all schools that have questions about their asbestos work. It is open 8 A.M. to 5 P.M. Central Time.
Vol. 11, Issue 03, Page 12Published in Print: September 18, 1991, as E.P.A. Warns 1,300 Districts of Asbestos Violations