Cleaning up the firms that remove asbestos. EPA requires contractors which work in schools to pass training course

When a New York company bid for the job to remove dangerous asbestos from the Veterans Administration hospital in Long Beach, Calif., no one could believe the price. Just $155,000 - a little over half what other firms were asking. But you get what you pay for. In May, a federal grand jury indicted company officials on charges that they used untrained workers, fudged air-monitoring test results, and tried to bribe inspectors to cover up the mess.

The case illustrates the shoddy side of the rapidly growing ``asbestos abatement'' industry.

As school districts, government officials, and private-property owners grapple with asbestos, attention is shifting toward the consultants and contractors who do the work. Many are well-trained professionals. But others, such as the firm described above, contribute to a growing list of asbestos horror stories.

So far, the Environmental Protection Agency has focused on cleaning up the nation's schools. The agency yesterday unveiled final rules for how schools should deal with asbestos, including a new federal requirement that contractors and consultants pass training courses. About half the states have minimum training requirements.

``There are still bad contractors out there - still people taking short-cuts - but with certification, we think it'll get better,'' says Michael Stahl, head of EPA's asbestos action program.

Mr. Stahl admits, however, that some firms can still slip through the cracks. The new rules apply only to companies that do at least part of their work in schools.

Besides establishing federal certification, the new rules also require schools to take corrective action when they find asbestos problems. In the past, schools were only required to inspect. There was no requirement that they do anything about asbestos problems once they found them.

And in another major change, the schools will now be required to inspect for all forms of asbestos, not just those likely to crumble into the air.

Asbestos, once called the ``magic mineral'' because of its fire-retardant qualities, was used in nearly every building constructed in the United States between World War II and the mid-1970s.

Left alone, it usually doesn't cause problems. But when disturbed, asbestos fibers can flake loose and permeate the air inside a building. Medical studies indicate that it can cause cancer in humans.

The discovery of this potential health threat has transformed asbestos removal and containment into a growth industry. Businesses fear the liability they might incur if workers develop health problems.

Federal officials estimate that over 730,000 buildings in the country, not including schools and private homes, contain asbestos. This represents a potential cleanup market worth at least $100 million over the next 25 years.

Not surprisingly, the number of firms doing asbestos-related work has mushroomed - from a handful a decade ago to more than 5,000 today.

With such rapid growth, the companies are difficult to monitor. Just a fraction of the projects get inspected by state or local authorities. In Illinois, for instance, only about 10 percent of the 250 asbestos-abatement projects done in schools this summer were inspected by state officials.

Under federal rules, anyone removing more than 160 square feet of asbestos or demolishing a building containing asbestos has to notify the EPA. But the agency lacks the manpower to closely watch the jobs. Meanwhile, across the country, the number of notifications has grown dramatically.

EPA's office in San Francisco has seen the number jump tenfold since 1982. ``And that's just the tip of the iceberg,'' says an EPA official in California. ``Because we know there are people out there that are doing this work without notifying us.''

Removal and containment jobs also fall under the jurisdiction of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which regulates conditions in the workplace. Properly managed sites often require elaborate equipment - everything from protective suits for laborers to ventilation systems that keep asbestos from escaping into the outside air. This has helped make asbestos abatement extremely expensive.

Some critics argue that the abatement firms are often too eager to rip out asbestos.

``If there's ever another asbestos health problem in this country, it will be the result of asbestos-product removal,'' says William Lewis, a spokesman for the Safe Buildings Alliance, a group which represents asbestos manufacturers.

Mr. Lewis argues that less drastic measures - such as closing off asbestos insulation from the open air - are more effective.

The structure of regulations only adds to the problem, he says. For instance, the EPA has not set a maximum level of air contamination that could be used as a guide by abatement consultants.

``Without some objective measure, it's left up to the individual consultants,'' Lewis says.

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