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Davis Calls for ‘Asbestos Czar’ to Oversee Removal Work

Times Education Writer

Finding state efforts to inspect and remove asbestos from California public school buildings in “total disarray,” state Controller Gray Davis on Thursday urged the appointment of an “asbestos czar” to make sure the work is completed efficiently and competently.

Under new federal regulations, school districts nationwide face an October deadline to inspect all school buildings for asbestos and submit plans for its removal, but no state funds and relatively few federal dollars have been appropriated for the work. The survey alone may cost California schools $100 million, the controller said, and asbestos cleanup work at 7,000 schools statewide may cost at least $500 million.

In an audit review that Davis released at a press conference at Hollywood High School on Thursday, the controller’s office found that the state has failed to disburse $16 million in state money for asbestos removal projects available since 1984. Additional funds voted by the Legislature over the last two years were vetoed by Gov. George Deukmejian because of the delay in disbursing the existing money.

“The state program is a mess and cries out for leadership,” said Davis, who was flanked by representatives of school employees’ unions that have been critical of local districts’ handling of the asbestos problem.

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Asbestos was commonly used in school construction until the early 1970s, when its potential carcinogenic effects became widely known. Almost every school has asbestos in floor and ceiling tiles, acoustical plaster, pipe insulation and fireproofing materials. The chalky substance is dangerous only if it deteriorates or becomes friable--or powdery--and airborne. Experts say that forms of cancer associated with exposure to friable asbestos may take many years to develop.

The controller’s report said that 64% of public elementary and secondary schools contain asbestos that may pose a risk to students and school employees. It would cost $14,000 per school to conduct the federally mandated inspection and draw up a cleanup plan, and $48,000 per school to train cleanup workers and remove the asbestos hazard.

Davis said about half a dozen state agencies have partial responsibility for various aspects of school asbestos abatement, including the Department of Education, the Department of Health Services and Cal/OSHA, the state job safety agency. He recommended that the Legislature consolidate authority for funding and monitoring school efforts under one agency and appoint a director who could be held accountable for the overall state program.

Based on an Assembly Office of Research report that drew similar conclusions, Assemblywoman Jackie Speier (D-S. San Francisco) recently introduced legislation that would centralize such authority in the state Office of Local Assistance, a unit of the state Allocation Board that has responsibility for processing claims for state funds. Speier also has proposed a bill that would place a $100-million bond measure on the November ballot to fund school asbestos programs.

Rick Henry, who oversees asbestos abatement efforts for the Los Angeles Unified School District, said he would welcome the establishment of one agency to handle all school asbestos problems.

“Right now, I can count 16 agencies that have some hand (in the asbestos programs), so one agency would be beautiful,” he said. “It would make it easier to make sure we are in compliance. There are so many different rules, and many of them overlap and contradict each other.”

Henry said he would not want the Office of Local Assistance to be given primary responsibility for coordinating state cleanup efforts, however, because it has moved too slowly in processing district applications for abatement funds. Since last year the district has applied for $2 million in state assistance--half of which would reimburse the district for abatement work performed in 1984 and 1985--but has yet to receive any response from the agency.

The Los Angeles school board voted earlier this month to spend $15 million out of its general fund over the next two years to check the presence and condition of asbestos in 10,000 school buildings.

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According to Davis, other districts have taken extreme measures to raise the money needed for the expensive surveying and cleanup work. The San Francisco Unified School District mortgaged its administration building to help raise the $11 million it needs to pay for asbestos removal projects. The controller’s report noted that a substantial portion of that amount is needed to correct improper abatement work carried out at two district schools, a situation that might have been averted if there had been “adequate state expertise and participation.”


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