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Asbestos Funds Cut From Conferees' 1994 Spending Bill

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WASHINGTON--The only federal program that pays for reducing an environmental hazard in schools apparently will not be funded this year--and may effectively be dead.

A fiscal 1994 appropriations bill that is headed for final Congressional approval contains no funding for the Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Act, which Congress had maintained for eight years despite the objections of Presidents Reagan and Bush.

Senators last month added $29 million in ASHAA funding to their version of HR 2491, which would fund the Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development departments as well as independent agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, which administers ASHAA. (See Education Week, Sep. 29, 1993.)

But the counterpart House bill did not include ASHAA funding, and neither does the compromise version that emerged from a House-Senate conference committee last week.

The House approved the bill last week, and the Senate was expected to pass it this week, clearing it for President Clinton's signature.

Like his predecessors, Mr. Clinton did not request funding for ASHAA, which provides grants and loans to school districts for asbestos abatement. But education lobbyists were surprised when both appropriations subcommittees with jurisdiction over ASHAA declined to fund it.

"We are very unhappy about [the cut],'' said Carolyn Henrich, a lobbyist for the National PTA. "Schools are going to be surprised when there isn't any money this year.''

Financial Constraints

The cut will force many districts that would have received grants to take funding away from other educational programs, said William Bruno, a lobbyist for the National School Boards Association.

The federal government has provided $422 million to 239 districts for asbestos abatement since ASHAA was first enacted in 1985, according to the E.P.A. In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, ASHAA distributed $36 million, which supporters say has been worth an estimated $76.2 million to districts because they do not pay interest on ASHAA loans.

But the conference committee's report said that "enormous fiscal constraints'' made it very difficult to fund the program in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., the chairwoman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the E.P.A., argued that asbestos was a "relatively low risk'' compared with other hazards.

"There is a lot of skepticism over what asbestos causes now,'' Mr. Bruno said. (See related story, page 1.)

The conferees directed the E.P.A. to study the "remaining hazards and relative risk'' of asbestos in schools, and report within six months.

But lobbyists do not expect ASHAA to be resurrected any time soon.

"The Congress has very clearly spoken,'' said Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the National Education Association. "It's unrealistic to expect that it will be funded next year.''

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