Asbestos Deadline Said Too Early

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There is a growing belief among members of the Congress, state officials, and many education groups that schools will not be able to meet the first deadline of the new federal asbestos law.

The sweeping law, which went into effect in December, requires all schools to inspect their buildings for the cancer-causing substance and to submit management plans to state authorities by Oct. 12.

But many of those tracking the issue say that a shortage of qualified consultants and insufficient guidance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will make that deadline all but impossible for many public and private schools to meet.

Pressure has been building at both the national and local level for an extension:

Three bills have been introduced in the Congress that would push back the Oct. 12 deadline by at least a year. Congressional aides said last week that hearings on the issue could be held as early as this month.

In Nebraska, lawmakers approved a resolution last month calling for the deadline to "be extended to a reasonable date."

Two major education groups--the National School Boards Association and the American Association of School Administrators--have mounted campaigns to extend the deadline.

And, late last week, a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia was expected to rule on a request by the aasa for an extension. The group had lodged its request as a petitioner in the suit filed by a group of former asbestos manufacturers seeking to overturn the regulations.

New Requirements

Even before they became law, the complicated regulations of the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act were causing some observers to predict that schools would be forced to expend considerable amounts of time, money, and effort to comply with the law. (See Education Week, Oct. 21, 1987.)

Ahera requires schools to inspect for both friable and nonfriable asbestos, using inspectors who have passed epa-approved courses. It also mandates the removal, containment, or monitoring of the hazardous material when it is found.

Districts that do not comply with the new law will be subject to fines of up to $5,000 a day for each violation.

The law's requirements far exceed those of a 1982 law mandating school inspections for friable asbestos only. But although the deadline for the earlier measure was June 1983, the epa has estimated that only 11 percent of districts had fulfilled all requirements by January 1984--six months after the deadline.

Low Compliance Foreseen

A recent survey suggests that, while compliance rates for the new law may not reach those depths, they will be low.

According to a nationwide poll conducted by the aasa, 23 state agencies charged with implementing the asbestos law expect that not all the school districts in their state will be able to complete inspections and write management plans by Oct. 12.

Only eight state agencies were confident that all the schools in their state could meet the deadline, and 18 were unsure.

Of the 29 state agencies that said they wanted the deadline extended, 22 indicated that they needed extensions of at least six months.

Officials responding to the survey cited the following reasons for believing that full compliance would not be possible:

The shortage of certified consultants and inspection personnel.

The scarcity of courses available for schools or districts wanting to train their own personnel to handle the inspections.

The inadequacy of the epa's efforts to provide information, training courses, and general guidance.

The fact that school budgets for 1987-88 were approved before ahera became law and do not include funds for consultant fees.

"Here we are, in the middle of the budget year, and we are supposed to make corrections that there is no way for us to account for," explained T.C. Mattocks, superintendent of the Cut Bank, Mont., school district, in an interview last week. "If we meet the deadline, we'll in effect have to steal money from textbooks, or school lunches, or whatever, to meet the federal guidelines."

According to the aasa survey, some districts, anticipating that the deadline will be extended, have not yet begun to look for consultants. Those that have begun to look--or to bid for contractors--are often working with incomplete knowledge, the survey found. Many states do not have lists of certified contractors, and the epa's 10 regional offices do not keep lists of people who have passed approved courses.

At the same time, some institutions that administer the courses are reluctant to give out the names of people who have passed, the survey found.

In a notice published last month in the Federal Register, the epa estimated that there were 1,400 people as of December who had passed inspector and management-planner courses approved by the agency. How many consultants will be needed to implement the law has not been determined, an agency spokesman said last week.

The ability of laboratories to process the projected number of asbestos samples required by the inspections is an additional concern for some. In Texas alone, the Texas Association of School Boards is expecting a backlog of from 40,000 to 60,000 unprocessed samples this summer.

No 'Blanket Exemption'

In contrast, some advocates believe that unless the Oct. 12 deadline is enforced, schools will not comply with the new law.

William K. Borwegen, the occupation-safety and health-program coordinator for the Service Employees International Union, said schools have known about the hazards posed by asbestos for more than a decade and should have been prepared to comply with the law.

"It's a little premature to make a blanket statement that schools won't be able to comply with ahera," he said.

"We think there are some glitches in the system and if there is a need to amend the legislation, the legislation should deal with the glitches, not a blanket exemption to all school districts," he said.

If an extension is granted, Mr. Borwegen said, "we'll just have school districts coming back in a year to say they want another extension."

Joel Packer, a legislative specialist for the National Education Association, agreed. Although limited exemptions might be necessary for certain states and school districts, he said, "we just don't think that we can wait another year to see what is out there."

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