EPA steps up enforcement of asbestos recordkeeping

School citations way up since 2006, but not for exposure to the carcinogenic material

December 26, 2007|By Kenneth R. Fletcher | Kenneth R. Fletcher,Capital News Service

Environmental Protection Agency actions against Maryland schools for asbestos-related violations have exploded in the past year, from less than one per year from 2001 to 2006 to 16 since September 2006.

The 16 actions filed between September 2006 and September 2007 included everything from small private schools to some of the largest school systems in the state, according to a Capital News Service review of EPA data.

None of the violations is related to dangerous exposure to the carcinogenic material, school and environmental officials said. The actions mostly involve problems with the paperwork schools must keep to track asbestos, and the increase reflects a rise in state inspections and stricter enforcement.

But the EPA does not take violations lightly: Penalties for schools in violation run up to $6,500 per day; a school can escape the fine by spending the same amount to bring itself up to code.

Major violators include school systems in Baltimore City and Baltimore County. The EPA reported in September 2006 that the city spent $305,730 to bring schools up to code, while the county spent $245,538, all for violations related to recordkeeping.

Schools are supposed to maintain asbestos-management plans, but it is often not a priority for busy educators, said Mardel Knight, head of Maryland's asbestos inspection unit.

Sometimes the plan "gets thrown out or locked up in a drawer," Knight said. "The principals have so many things to do that they could care less."

Knight's inspectors often find that plans are missing or outdated. Sometimes schools say they sent out a required annual notification but cannot find a copy of it. Others lack records of recent inspections.

"We don't find very many in compliance when we inspect," said Knight, who estimated that about 90 percent of Maryland schools inspected are not in compliance with asbestos regulations.

Schools are selected for inspection on a random basis. In the past two years, inspections by Knight and her three inspectors have increased from about 25 a year to 60.

In the past, the EPA would let the state give schools a chance to bring themselves up to code before seeking fines, said Harry Daw, with the EPA's Region III enforcement office. Often, no formal EPA action would be taken if an offending school brought itself into compliance.

But the EPA recently began requiring that states send it all inspections directly for enforcement, Daw said.

Even though it might seem like a technicality, Knight said, the plans need to be taken seriously. Schools must know where asbestos is, or renovation could be done in an area with undocumented asbestos, releasing the fibers and posing a threat to students and staff.

"Bottom line, it's a carcinogen and none of it is a safe level of exposure," she said.

Asbestos was once commonly used in ceiling and floor tiles, insulation and other building materials. But in the 1980s, breathing asbestos fibers was shown to cause lung diseases, including cancer.

While asbestos locked away in building materials does not necessarily pose a risk, when it is disturbed or deteriorates particles enter the air and can be inhaled. The 1986 Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act required schools to manage the material "in place" instead of requiring costly asbestos removal.

"There is asbestos in the schools. We all have that, every school system out there has that," said Ray Prokop, director of facilities for Carroll County public schools.

All schools containing asbestos - and in general that includes any school built before October 1998 - are required to have asbestos-management plans outlining where the material is and what steps are being taken to contain it.

Schools must also annually notify parents and staff of the plans, train maintenance staff for asbestos safety and regularly inspect areas with asbestos.

Since those regulations took effect, there has not been "one single record of a building occupant coming to harm from release of asbestos," said David Lever, director of Maryland's public school construction program. But schools officials are not complacent.

Bringing a school up to code can be costly. Licensed contractors must be hired, and keeping up with the regular staff inspections can be tough.

"There is no denying that it is labor-consuming, time-consuming and expensive, but you don't want to question the worth and put a child or building occupant in danger," said Kathy Dempsey, a spokeswoman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington.

In 2005 and 2006, Catholic schools in the archdiocese spent $72,000 to bring dozens of elementary schools up to code, according to EPA records, though Dempsey said the total cost might end up being be much higher.

To make sure they stay in compliance, she said, the schools "now have massive checklists where they keep track as to when each school is supposed to report in."

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