Accord on Asbestos-Control Bill Sought

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House and Senate negotiators met last week in an effort to resolve their differences over a bill to control hazardous asbestos in an estimated 31,000 school buildings across the country.

The legislation, known as ''the asbestos hazardous emergency control act," would force the Environmental Protection Agency to adopt rules requiring public and private school systems to remove or contain friable asbestos, a cancer-causing material, if it is present in their buildings.

In addition, the measure would require either states or the E.P.A. to set up a program to accredit the asbestos- abatement contractors hired by school districts.

Existing E.P.A. regulations require school systems only to inspect buildings for asbestos and to notify parents and employees if any is found.

Compliance With Rule

The E.P.A. estimates that roughly 50 percent of all schools have not complied with the existing rule, according to Susan Vogt, director of the agency's Asbestos Action Program. Ms. Vogt said most of the violations are minor and of a technical nature, but major public-employees' and teachers' unions have alleged that noncompliance is widespread and serious.

Ms. Vogt said the E.P.A. opposes the bill because it would "divert the agency from doing other things, such as running training courses for contractors."

Because every school building has different characteristics, she added, it would be impossible to come up with a uniform national standard on asbestos removal and containment.

Passed Unanimously

Despite the E.P.A.'S objections, the House and Senate unanimously passed their versions of the bill in August and September.

The bills' sponsors, Representative James J . Florio, Democrat of New Jersey, and Senator Robert T. Stafford, Republican of Vermont, say they are confident that a compromise measure can be agreed on and put to a vote in both houses before the 99th Congress adjourns next month.

However, a dispute has arisen over language in the House version that addresses the heavy product-liability burden of asbestos manufacturers.

"We've reached some significant agreements, and there are still some serious disagreements," said Robert Sommer, an aide on the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Tourism, and Transportation. Because negotiations are continuing, neither he nor other staff members would elaborate.

Points of Difference

The chief difference between the bills is a provision in the House version (H R 5073) that would render the language of the bill inadmissible in court-a measure that opponents said "would pull the rug out from under" schools seeking compensation through the courts for the co t of abating asbestos hazards.

"'That really ties our hands," said Claudia Mansfield, a government relations specialist for the American Association of School Administrators.

The asbestos-industry lobby contends that the provision would keep the measure "litigation-neutral," according to Lawrence T. Hoyle, a lawyer for National Gypsum Company.

Nationwide, he said, asbestos manufacturers now face an estimated 150 lawsuits brought by school districts.

The Senate bill (S 2083), approved Sept. 10, does not contain the provision.

Another sticking point between the two versions is a section m the House bill that would exempt contractors and school district! from joint liability in any actions they might take in order to comply with the law.

Favored by education groups, the section would keep school districts from becoming the "deep-pocket" defendant in a lawsuit, said Edward R. Kealy, director of federal programs for the National School Boards Association.

The same section would exempt contractors and school districts from liability unless they are "grossly negligent." The Senate has been reluctant to embrace those provisions because they might interfere with state laws, according to Congressional staff members.

Funding Concerns

Education groups have also expressed concern over the lack of adequate funding for the mandate to remove or contain asbestos.

The legislation would create a $loo-million trust fund to provide low-interest loans to school districts. The fund would recycle repayments from loans made to school districts through the Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Act of 1984. Districts that borrowed money under the 1984 program were given 20 years to repay it.

The House and Senate appropriations committees have, as yet, earmarked no money for asbestos abatement grants and loans for fiscal year 1987.

Manville Lawsuit

In a related development, a recent ruling by a federal appeals court could further delay the Manville Corporation's four-year-old bankruptcy proceedings. School districts have submitted $5.4 million in asbestos- related property-damage claims against the building-supply manufacturer.

Manville recently asked schools and other property-damage claimants to vote on proposed procedures for making claims.

Ellen Chapnick, a lawyer representing schools and school districts with such claims, said last week that the recent court decision does not affect the election on the Manville property-damage claims proposal.

She said school districts with claims should mail in their ballots to Manville by no later than Nov. 15

Associate Editor Tom Mirga contributed to this report.

Vol. 06, Issue 03, Page 13

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