E.P.A.'s Handling of Asbestos Contractor Criticized

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WASHINGTON--The Environmental Protection Agency is not doing enough to ensure that schools perform high-quality asbestos inspection and abatement work, Congressional critics charged last week.

The hearing, held by the House's subcommittee on the environment, energy, and natural resources, was dominated by concerns that the E.P.A.'S pursuit of an asbestos contractor that has been accused of performing substandard work in 21 school districts is indicative of overall poor program management.

In August, the agency sent a letter to 1,300 districts nationwide to warn them that the work of their asbestos contractor, Hall-Kimbrell Environmental Services Inc., might not meet the requirements of the federal asbestos law. (See Education Week, Sept. 18, 1991.)

That law, the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act of 1986, required schools to inspect for asbestos and to submit management plans to state authorities by October 1988, unless they requested a deferral until May 1989. The letter came on the heels of a decision by the E.P.A. to consolidate 21 separate administrative complaints against Hall-Kimbrell, one of the largest asbestos-consulting firms in the country.

The agency, in its complaints, maintains that the firm did not identify suspected asbestos-containing material, such as wallboard and hard plaster, and used improper sampling techniques.

Sharp Questions

At the hearing, panel members sharply questioned agency officials about their handling of the Hall-Kimbrell case. They were asked to explain if they had made clear to Hall-Kimbrell and other contractors that wallboard was to be tested for asbestos.

Linda Fisher, the E.P.A.'S assistant administrator for pesticides and toxic substances, said agency documents list wallboard as a suspected asbestos-containing material that should be tested. She said officials had responded to several of Hall- Kimbrell's letters about the matter, some dated as early as 1989, over the phone.

"I think the issue is that they did not want to hear the answer to their question," she said. "It is hard to say [Mr. Kimbrell] is an innocent person who did not understand."

She added that, while the agency has noticed a pattern of poor management plans developed by several other firms, the E.P.A. has not yet thought it necessary to notify all potentially affected schools about those quality concerns.

She also said the E.P.A. might issue a revised AHERA rule that would increase the agency's enforcement powers.

Later in the hearing, David Kimbrell, who rounded the firm that is now owned by Professional Services Inc., said the E.P.A. did not make its position about wallboard clear until after most in-school inspections had been completed. "I never had my phone calls returned," he said.

Low Overall Risk

In a related development, a new report says it is highly unlikely that children and other building occupants can be harmed by undisturbed asbestos-containing building materials that are in good condition.

The report, prepared by Health Effects Institute-Asbestos Research, was long awaited by real-estate, building, and union officials, who are sparring over whether the E.P.A. should recommend this fall that an AHERA-like program be extended to other public and private buildings. Half of the report's $4-million price tag was covered by the E.P.A., the rest by private industry.

Over all, the report found, indoor asbestos levels in such buildings were very similar to outdoor levels. It estimates that, if children are exposed to average indoor levels of asbestos in school for five hours a day every school day, they stand a 6 in 1 million chance of developing lung cancer.

At higher levels, recorded in about 5 percent of all schools that were included in the study's data pool, children face a tenfold increase in the risk of developing lung cancer.

Young children who are continuously exposed to low levels of asbestos for five years face a less than 1 in 1 million chance of developing mesothelioma, a disease caused only by exposure to asbestos.

The report, which acknowledged that much of the existing data about asbestos exposure and risk is incomplete, noted that custodians, maintenance workers, and asbestos-abatement workers face much greater health risks because they regularly disturb asbestos fibers on the job.

Although the report found that most asbestos-remediation work is unnecessary, "the panel would not agree with the conclusion that asbestos poses no problem," said Dr. Arthur C. Upten, the chairman of the 17-member study group.

The report, which made no policy recommendations, suggested that the approach included in AHERA was prudent. The report said that building surveys for asbestos-containing material should be site-specific, and that operations and maintenance plans should be developed for managing asbestos in place. It did not say, however, whether all building owners should conduct these measures.

Vol. 11, Issue 05, Page 28

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