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Congress Appears Poised To Cut Asbestos-Abatement Funds

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WASHINGTON--Congress is apparently poised to cut funding for the Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Act, a program lawmakers maintained for eight years over the objections of two Republican Presidents.

The program channeled $76.2 million to school districts this year to help defray asbestos-abatement costs. It is the only federal program that helps schools address environmental hazards, and lobbyists see its likely downfall as a bad omen for future efforts to secure aid for school-based lead and radon programs.

"We've always used this as a precedent to fund other environmental-hazard programs in schools,'' said Carolyn Henrich, a lobbyist for the National PTA, one of several education groups that are waging an uphill battle to restore at least partial funding for the ASHAA program.

The House voted to cut the program in June, when it approved an appropriations bill for veterans affairs, housing and urban development, and independent agencies that included no funding for it. The bill covers the Environmental Protection Agency, which runs the asbestos program.

The Senate version of the measure, HR 2491, was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee last week, also without asbestos funding. The program's supporters must now seek an amendment on the Senate floor, and then hope it can survive a House-Senate conference.

An Underfunded Mandate

Education lobbyists argue that the ASHAA program is critical because it eases the financial burden imposed on schools when they were required to test for asbestos by the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act of 1986, known as AHERA.

"This program, which schools need, has been dramatically underfunded and now it is in jeopardy,'' said Michael Edwards, the manager of federal relations for the National Education Association. "This cut will hurt.''

The E.P.A. says 98 percent of districts have complied with AHERA, which required them to test for asbestos and develop management plans.

Since ASHAA was enacted separately in 1985, 239 schools have received over $422 million in grants and loans to offset asbestos-abatement costs. The E.P.A. estimates that projects funded under the program have helped eliminate 3.2 million student and employee "exposure hours'' to asbestos per week.

Funding under ASHAA is targeted to schools that have the most serious asbestos problems and the greatest financial need.

But the grants and loans are a tiny sum compared to the $6 billion the E.P.A. estimates schools have spent on asbestos abatement.

"The mentality is it's a drop in the bucket,'' Mr. Edwards said.

No Presidential Support

When President Clinton included no funding for the program in his fiscal 1994 budget proposal, he was following in the footsteps of Presidents Reagan and Bush, who repeatedly recommended eliminating the program. However, while members of Congress always restored funding in the past, they are apparently willing to go along this time.

Senate aides said last week that the decision to eliminate funding for the program was based simply on budget constraints.

"We started off deep in the hole, and not to minimize [ASHAA], but it's not a global program,'' one aide said.

But the program's supporters said school-asbestos control should not have to compete with other environmental priorities.

"It's tragic that we have to have asbestos-abatement money competing with resources to clean up the water or the air,'' said Mr. Edwards of the N.E.A.

An aide said the report that will accompany the Senate bill directs the E.P.A. to review the issue of asbestos in schools and design a strategy to address it. The report also requires the agency to complete a national survey within six months of the law's passage.

But education lobbyists argue that risk assessments were already completed by the E.P.A. in 1991, and this mandate is simply a diversion that attempts to minimize the asbestos hazard.

"No one can deny there is a hazard out there,'' Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the N.E.A., asserted.

Asbestos, which was once commonly used in building products, has been linked to lung cancer and other respiratory diseases.

But some scientists say the threat has been greatly exaggerated. A 1990 study, for example, said the type of asbestos fiber most often found in schools does not pose a health risk to students and staff. (See Education Week, Jan. 24 and Jan. 31, 1990.)

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