Federal aid to rid schools of carcinogenic asbestos is not always going to correct the worst hazards in the most financially needy areas, according to an internal Environmental Protection Agency report.
"EPA provided grants and loans to schools with only minor damage and health risks, while schools with major damage and more severe health risks did not receive funds," the agency's inspector general said in a draft report.
The report, made public by Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.), said that because EPA's rules for aid are too broad, about 12 percent of the $92 million distributed in 1985 and 1986 went to schools "that did not have the most critical hazards."
Florio is a principal author of the 1984 law to aid the neediest school districts with the worst problems with asbestos, whose fibers, if inhaled, can cause lung cancer. EPA estimates that the substance is present in 31,000 schools attended by 15 million students.
Michael M. Stahl, acting director of EPA's asbestos action program, agreed that some money is going to schools with minor problems, but blamed this on the law's mandate that every state get a minimum share of the assistance. Florio said the purpose of the minimum share "was to ensure that every state gets something."
EPA distributed $43 million this year under the same rules criticized by the report, according to Stahl.
The report said 10 schools with a total of 36 hours of human exposure weekly to crumbling or damaged asbestos shared $387,000, while eight schools with a combined 19,173 exposure hours did not get the $391,000 they needed.
EPA also provided an estimated $1.1 million last year for asbestos removal in private schools with less severe problems than unfunded public schools, according to the report. More than one-fourth of the money went to five schools with a total of 21 weekly exposure hours.
Stahl said the EPA took steps this year to prevent a recurrence of this situation.
The inspector general said about 27 percent of the money distributed in 1985 and 1986 was in grants that are supposed to go to the poorest school districts, determined partly by an area's per capita income. Stahl, however, said the wording of the finding "overstates the problem."
"The audit documents missed opportunities to provide money to schools with severe asbestos problems," Florio said. "The consequences of the agency's decisions are devastating since so many children remain exposed to this deadly substance."