Employees Union Sues E.P.A. on Asbestos Risk
Washington--The Service Employees International Union, which represents some 100,000 school-maintenance workers around the country, last week filed suit against the Environmental Protection Agency in an attempt to force the agency to issue within 30 days rules requiring the removal of hazardous asbestos from the nation's public schools.
Union officials said it has been five years since the agency first committed itself to issuing rules concerning the abatement of easily crumbling or powdered asbestos in public and private schools. But "the epa has refused to take any meaningful step[s]" since that time, according to John J. Sweeney, president of the seiu
David Ryan, a spokesman for the agency, said last week that the epa did not yet have "any official reaction" to the complaint. Both Mr. Ryan and Susan Vogt, special assistant to Alvin L. Alm, deputy administrator of the epa, said the agency does not have a timetable for releasing rules regarding asbestos removal.
"We have plans to improve our guidance for making decisions as to when removal is appropriate versus when encapsulation is appropriate [and] to make it as specific as we possibly can, but that is more on the side of technical assistance," said Ms. Vogt.
"Our position all along," she continued, "has been that it is impossible [to write rules requiring removal] because the situation with asbestos in any building, including schools, is so specific that it's impossible to write a rule that would cover every situation. What it boils down to in most cases is professional judgment."
The service employees' union wants rules that provide standards for determining when asbestos is hazardous and requires correction; mandate that corrective actions be performed; and detail how schools should correct problems associated with asbestos-laden materials, including standards for the protection of workers involved in cleaning up asbestos.
In its suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the union asks the court to assume an overseer role in the rulemaking process, because of what it views as epa's "complete unwillingness" to address the issue. Specifically, the union wants the court to require the agency to file periodic reports detailing the pace and progress of its rulemaking, and to fix a date by which the epa must issue final rules, "well within one year's time."
The union also accused the epa of suppressing information on the severity of the asbestos problem until after the fall elections. The agency had announced a press conference in August to release a report estimating that up to 15 million children and 1.4 million school employees may be exposed to asbestos, according to William K. Borwegen, the union's occupational safety and health program coordinator. That press conference still has not occurred.
Inaccurate and Inadequate
The epa's rules at present demand only that schools inspect for asbestos and inform parents and school personnel if friable (easily crumbled or powdered) asbestos is found. There are no rules requiring asbestos removal. Schools that decide to undertake removal, however, are required by current regulations to follow epa guidelines. Experts consider many of those guidelines inaccurate and inadequate.
"In one of the worst cases of government malfeasance in history, the epa has made a bad situation worse by requiring schools to inspect for asbestos and notify parents and workers of the results without providing the regulations necessary to abate the hazard in a safe and complete manner," Mr. Sweeney said at a press conference last Tuesday.
In the absence of federal regulations, he said, thousands of schools have "haphazardly" undertaken asbestos removal and have actually made the situation "even more dan-gerous" by releasing previously undisturbed asbestos fibers into the air. Asbestos is most hazardous when breathed into the lungs or swallowed.
"Incompetent removal contractors are having a field day," Mr. Sweeney added. "Workers have been observed flushing indestructible cancer-causing asbestos materials down toilets, releasing enough fibers to contaminate an entire city's water supply. Others have been seen transporting asbestos materials away by private automobiles. And all this at a time when millions of school children are returning to school."
'Unwilling' to Respond
Mr. Sweeney said that the seiu filed the lawsuit "after failing several times this past month to get a proper response on this crisis from [William D.] Ruckelshaus," administrator of the epa
The union filed a petition with the agency last November requesting that it speed up the rulemaking process regarding the removal of asbestos from school buildings. In February, the epa agreed to consider the union's request.
Since then, the agency has held four public hearings across the coun-try and has solicited written comments on "current options for asbestos abatement," according to John A. Moore, assistant administrator for the epa's pesticides and toxic substances division. But while the agency has received a preliminary draft of the hearings' findings from an outside consulting group, it is still analyzing the data, according to Ms. Vogt.
In a letter to Mr. Sweeney at the end of August, Mr. Moore stated that under the Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Act of 1984, the epa is required to develop some standards within nine months' time "to determine which contractors are qualified to carry out abatement activities, and also determine what training, equipment, protective clothing, and other information and materials must be supplied to adequately advise and protect school employees who carry out abatement activities." The act authorizes money for grants and loans to schools to help clean up asbestos.
Mr. Moore wrote that the epa planned to develop a contractor-certification program that would contain "model criteria" for determining the qualifications of asbestos3removal contractors.
In addition, he wrote, the agency is considering requiring schools to re-inspect for asbestos periodically and report their findings to the epa The agency also would seek to develop "guidelines" on the hazardousness of asbestos, he stated.
However, according to Mr. Sweeney, that response did not address "the essential concerns" of the union--a timeline in which the agency would issue proposed rules requiring asbestos abatement. The union argues that the standards, model criteria, and guidelines referred to in the letter will apply only to the small fraction of schools that receive money from the $50-million federal appropriation to assist in asbestos cleanup.
Union officials also contend that "model criteria" and "guidelines" fall short of actual requirements to remove asbestos from school buildings.
Meanwhile, following several weeks of confusion regarding the status of their asbestos cleanup, by last Monday, all of New Jersey's public schools were open for business, according to Lynn Price, spokesman for the New Jersey Edu-cation Department. On Aug. 29, New Jersey's Public Advocate's Office, a watchdog agency in the state's executive branch, released a report asserting that 200 New Jersey schools that had received permission to remove asbestos during the summer had not been inspected and given final approval to open. (See Education Week, Sept. 12, 1984.) State education officials blamed the problem on poor state record-keeping.
Members of Parents Against Asbestos Hazards in the Schools, a New Jersey group that had threatened to boycott schools in the South Orange-Maplewood school district for failure to clean up asbestos, have since decided not to boycott. (See Education Week, Sept. 12, 1984.)
After taking their case to court two weeks ago, the parents won the right to bring in their own inspectors to examine the schools for asbestos. The parents now feel that the schools are "basically" safe--although some boiler rooms are contaminated--and have sent their children to school, according to Anthony Mazzochi, one of the group's leaders. The court is retaining jurisdiction over the case as asbestos cleanup and renovation in the schools proceeds.