ANNAPOLIS – Environmental Protection Agency enforcement 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 actions 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 analysis of EPA data.
None of the violations are related to dangerous exposure to the carcinogen, school and environmental officials said. The actions mostly involve problems with the paperwork schools must keep to track asbestos, and the increase is due to 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, or schools can escape the fine by spending the same amount to bring themselves up to code.
Major violators include school systems in Baltimore City and 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 top 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 not updated. Sometimes schools say they sent out a required annual notification but cannot find a copy of it. Others do not have records of recent inspections.
“We don’t find very many in compliance when we inspect,” said Knight, who estimated that roughly 90 percent of Maryland schools inspected are not in compliance with asbestos regulations.
Schools are selected for inspection randomly. In the last two years, inspections by Knight and her three inspectors have increased from about 25 each year to 60.
In the past, the EPA let the state give some schools a chance to bring themselves up to code before sending the inspections on to the federal agency, said Harry Daw, with the EPA’s region III enforcement office. Often, no formal EPA action was taken if the schools pulled into compliance.
But in fiscal 2007, the EPA began requiring that states send it all inspections directly for enforcement, Daw said.
Even though it seems 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 breathed in. The 1986 Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act required schools to “manage in place” the material, 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 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 building occupant coming to harm from release of asbestos,” said David Lever, director of Maryland’s public school construction program. But school officials do not treat the issue lightly.
“None of us is interested in a situation that endangers building occupants,” Lever said.
Bringing a school up to code can be costly. Specially 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, an Archdiocese of Washington spokeswoman.
In 2005 and 2006, the Catholic school system spent $72,000 to bring dozens of elementary schools up to code, according to EPA records, though Dempsey said the total cost may 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.”
Baltimore City officials blamed their asbestos violations on new charter schools. They said they have tried to guide operators of those privately run public schools, while requiring asbestos-awareness training for their own maintenance workers and new principals.
“We have doubled our efforts with our own schools to make sure everyone is aware,” said Keith Scroggins, chief operating officer for the city’s schools.
Knight said schools have no excuse for not complying with asbestos regulations. Maryland offers free workshops around the state that teach schools how to stay up to code. Knight said this year’s workshops aimed at small schools, which make up a large portion of violations, were poorly attended.
She suggested that any schools unsure of their compliance with asbestos regulations contact her unit in the Maryland Department of the Environment for advice. It is easier and cheaper to make the necessary updates on their own time than under an EPA deadline, she said.
“Call us before we call you,” she said. “If you are on the random inspection list, you don’t get any passes.”
-30- CNS 12-14-07