The Environmental Protection Agency refused to issue cleanup standards for asbestos in school buildings last year because of concern that the action might anger the Office of Management and Budget, according to internal agency notes released yesterday by Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.).
The notes, taken at a November meeting on a labor union's petition seeking the standards, indicate that Alvin L. Alm, then EPA deputy administrator, argued against the petition because he did not want to "get OMB pissed off right now."
Florio charged that the document suggests that the Reagan administration "is prepared to sabotage all federal efforts" to remove asbestos from the nation's schools.
"The documents give us a chilling and unusual glimpse behind the scenes of what has probably become a routine method of decision-making in Washington," said Florio, who accused OMB of acting as the administration's "regulatory executioner."
The notes were obtained by the Service Employes International Union (SEIU), which has filed suit against the EPA to force the adoption of asbestos cleanup standards. According to the notes, Alm told agency employes at a Nov. 14 meeting that he wanted to "avoid unnecessary provocation" of budget officials, who contended that the standards would not be cost-effective.
A week earlier, EPA staff experts had recommended that the union's petition be granted, and estimated that the rules necessary to protect asbestos-removal workers and school employes could be issued by this summer.
But two weeks after the meeting between Alm and other agency officials, the EPA denied the petition. "We do not agree that federal regulation is the best approach for deciding whether to abate potential asbestos hazards in schools and other public and commercial buildings," the agency said in a letter to SEIU President John J. Sweeney.
Asbestos, once widely used in insulation, has been conclusively linked to cancer and a variety of serious respiratory ailments. The EPA estimates that about 15 million children and 1.5 million school employes are exposed to loose, or friable, asbestos.
Alm, who left the EPA last January, could not be reached for comment yesterday. According to the notes, Alm also argued that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) asbestos-exposure standards should be applied to public employes as quickly as possible.
Alm said it was "crazy to not do this . . . . Do this ASAP." The agency has not taken action to extend OSHA protection to public employes, although it says it will make a decision on that matter by June.
Florio released the documents one day before a congressional hearing into another aspect of asbestos regulation by the EPA. The House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee has scheduled a hearing today on the status of another set of asbestos regulations that would have banned all uses of the substance by 1990.
Those rules, submitted to OMB last June, have become something of a regulatory yo-yo. The EPA announced earlier this year that it had decided to withdraw the rules in deference to other agencies with jurisdiction over hazardous substances. But last month, acting deputy administrator A. James Barnes said the EPA was withdrawing that decision so that it could spend more time reviewing the legal issues.
Where that leaves the proposed asbestos rules is unclear. But in a recent letter to Barnes, an OMB official made it clear that the budget office still believed that the proposals were "seriously flawed."
According to an Energy and Commerce aide, today's hearing will examine OMB's method of calculating the costs and benefits of asbestos regulation. EPA officials have concluded that banning asbestos would save more money than it would cost. The OMB disagrees.