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EPA Program to Monitor Asbestos in Schools Is Under-Resourced, Watchdog Says

Federal inspectors trail those of states, while most regions lack a monitoring strategy.

Thirty-two years after its enabling legislation, the school asbestos program at the Environmental Protection Agency has become a low-priority and underfunded federal initiative, an inspector general reported on Monday.

Only one of 10 EPA regions has a clear strategy on managing dangerous asbestos in buildings, and the federal program accounted for only 13 percent of the desireable inspections from 2011-2015, compared with 87 percent by states, said the report signed by EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins Jr.  The region with a strategy is Region 8, the mountains and plains states.

“This creates the risk that asbestos exposures in schools could occur and go undetected, unenforced or not properly remedied,” the report warned.

Under the 1986 Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance is responsible for oversight, enforcement and inspections support. But under the managing “in place” approach, asbestos inside of intact walls of older buildings is removed only if inspectors determine there is a danger of school children and staff being exposed.

Most EPA regions “have either significantly reduced or eliminated resources for their asbestos program,” with only five inspecting for asbestos violations under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act when they receive tips or complaints, the report found. The regional offices are expected to “maintain inspector expertise and capacity to respond appropriately to tips.”

The review, conducted between April 2017 and May 2018, evaluated data and performance that straddles the Obama and Trump administrations. The agency’s National Program Manager Guidance for fiscal 2018-19, it noted, no longer stipulates how the resources “should be distributed or explicitly encourages regions to develop inspection and compliance plans.”

After reviewing a draft report, EPA managers said, “disinvestment from the asbestos program has been due, in large part, to increasing resource limitations and competing priorities.”

The IG recommended that the compliance and enforcement office require regions to incorporate asbestos strategies into their compliance monitoring and also inform local educational agencies of the need for asbestos management plans as well as monitor compliance.

EPA agreed to take corrective actions.