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Published in Print: May 10, 2000, as Detroit Fined $1.4 Million Over Asbestos Inspections

Detroit Fined $1.4 Million Over Asbestos Inspections

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has levied a $1.4 million fine against the Detroit school district for failing to adhere to deadlines in monitoring asbestos levels in its schools.

A parent's complaint in November 1998 triggered an investigation. An EPA inspection of seven schools the following month found the crumbling, potentially cancer-causing insulation material "hanging out of ceilings and exposed around pipes in areas where children were close by," said Pamela Grace, an environmental-protection specialist with the agency's Chicago office.

The district's responses to a subsequent EPA questionnaire revealed that it had conducted the required inspections every three years of its 263 buildings, but in 256 of them it had missed the deadlines for doing so, Ms. Grace said. The fine—the largest ever imposed under the 1988 Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, which requires schools to inspect their premises for asbestos conditions— is for missing the deadlines, she said.

District officials have until May 14—one month from the filing of the EPA's administrative complaint—to appeal the fine. Ms. Grace said the district can arrange a reduced penalty if it proposes a plan to remedy the problems. The EPA would monitor progress on that plan and hold the fine in abeyance until it was complete, she said.

"We don't want the $1.4 million in our pockets," Ms. Grace said. "We would rather that they do their inspections in a timely manner and work to ease the hazardous conditions."

Announcement of the fine angered Gail Massey, a parent and activist in the 167,000 student Michigan district. She criticized its leaders for failing to tackle the problem earlier, saying it has been "common knowledge" for several years. She was particularly upset that the district had sponsored parties at some of the schools as they opened last fall, touting the physical improvements that had been made.

"How can you have a big gala party and smile and grin and know you didn't address the problem?" Ms. Massey said.

Nathaniel V. Taylor, the district's associate superintendent of business operations and chief operating officer, said there was "some merit" to the EPA's charge that the district did not always complete inspections by the required deadlines. But he said he would appeal the penalty because "it doesn't fit the crime."

"The district has in fact been doing the inspections, and the buildings are safe to the best of our knowledge," he said last week. "We will work to adjudicate this down to a reasonable resolution."

Vol. 19, Issue 35, Page 3

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