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Industry awaits EPA ruling on asbestos.

Industry awaits EPA ruling on asbestos

The Environmental Protection Agency will soon come out with its response to a request by a major labor union to require up-front asbestos inspections and management plans in all public and commercial buildings.

The Service Employees International Union, which is the largest union of janitors in the country, sued the EPA to issue regulations, for public and commercial buildings, similar to those expressed for schools in the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) of 1986. These rules require upfront inspection, notification of workers and occupants, preparation of management plans, and scheduling of abatement.

Current rules for public and commercial buildings, including multi-family dwellings, mandate inspection and disposal only when there is going to be some renovation or demolition work that might disturb asbestos.

Many say the Asbestos in Schools rule caused panic and actually increased health risk by disturbing asbestos that was encapsulated and not friable.

Last December a judge gave the EPA until July 1 to come out with its rules. In late June, EPA asked for an extension of that deadline until it received the results of a literature and protocol review by the Health Effects Institute-Asbestos Research, which is headed by Archibald Cox. EPA said it would make its decision, based on the group's findings, 45 days after the results are issued. The findings, sources say, are currently at the printer and should be in EPA's hands within the next few weeks.

Bill Borwegan, health and safety director for the Service Employees International Union, said they want the EPA to codify what most "progressive" building owners have already done, which is to find out if there is asbestos in their building." All we're asking building owners to do is to do whatever everyone says they should be doing," he said.

If building workers don't even know it's there, Borwegan said, there's no way they can protect themselves. "It's our members that are showing the signs of asbestos disease and the sole source of their exposure was buildings."

EPA has been seriously considering whether or not additional regulations were needed for public and commercial buildings, says one EPA official, ever since the rules for asbestos in school were established. According to David Kling, acting director of the Environmental Assistance Division in the Office of Toxic Substances, at that time it had been the agency's belief other federal standards in place were sufficient to protect the occupants of public and commercial buildings -- those of OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), which protects workers and the NESHAP (National Emissions Standard for Hazardous Air Pollutants), which states, if you renovate or demolish a building, you must first take out the asbestos.

In 1988, Kling said, they told legislators they would need three years to learn more about exposure and risk, to be sure there were enough experts to do inspection and management plans, to evaluate the schools program, and to not jeopardize the schools program.

In addition to requesting the study by the Health Effects Institute, Kling said, they are currently involved in policy dialogues with all interested parties and groups, including the real estate industry, they recently completed an evaluation of the school program and they are working with OSHA.

The OSHA standard, says Borwegan, is not restrictive enough at 100,000 fibers per cubic meter of air. "It's simply not as protective as what we think necessary," he said.

While Kling said he could not prejudge HEIAR findings, the agency believes in in-place management, and, he added, their policy was endorsed by the American Medical Association. "If you try to remove and you remove it poorly, you run the risk of having high exposure that didn't exist before," said Kling.

And, Kling said, while there are many interested parties, the agency's first priority is public health.

The Great Asbestos Debate

Meanwhile, the real estate industry, asbestos contractors, former asbestos manufacturers, await the answer to the big question -- does the risk warrant the burden of mandatory inspection and management plans?

"Before that enormous cost is imposed we want to make sure there is a reason," said Deborah Beck, vice president of the Real Estate Board of New York, and a member of the National Realty Committee.

The HEI-AR study, in part, she said, is a result of enormous pressure by the real estate industry to produce "an epidemiological study to see if it was necessary."

"What indeed are the environmental risks to individual occupants workers, residents at very low levels," asked Beck "No one has been willing to identify what is a safe level. Is there a standard somewhere above zero."

As far as New York building owners are concerned, Beck said, local laws and other provisions have been instituted by New York State and New York City that protect the public when the owner might be disturbing the asbestos as in the case of renovation or remodeling. She said she could not say if that level of "sophistication" exists elsewhere.

John Welch, president of the Safe Buildings Alliance, which represents leading building product manufacturers that formerly manufactured asbestos material, said he does not expect EPA to come out with any drastic measures.

"Given the fact that the agency has already denied two petitions and EPA is fighting the case in court, I would be surprised if they would have some conversion and put in rules requiring inspection and abatment," said Welch.

Welch believes the question will be addressed in the framework of OSHA regulations, rather than a new set of EPA rules. "It doesn't make any sense to have two asbestos cops out there," said Welch.

Gayle Essary, chief executive officer, of the Environmental Safety Council of America, Inc., said his organization supports individuals' right to know about hazardous materials in the work place, but he does not believe that the real estate industry should be mandated by the government to inspect and manage. "The less government regulation is preferred," said Essary, "because we feel the public sector can protect the health and safety of building occupants if they are given adequate economic and moral incentive."

Essary said his group also promotes in-place management and they have been working with major corporations to convince them that, rather than put time and effort into abatement, they would be better off ensuring that the building is "totally environmentally safe." He said they are working with the American Medical Association to adopt a certification for buildings that invest in these overall programs. Then, he said an owner can boast that his building is "totally environmentally safe", rather than "asbestos free."

"That leaves a lot more money in the till for the owner to do other things," said Essary.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Hagedorn Publication
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Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Fitzgerald, Therese
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Date:Sep 18, 1991
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