Here’s an amazing fact: Many people — even those who occupy decision-making positions in school districts — have no idea what AHERA is, what is required of the school district to comply, the current status of their schools’ reports, or how to comply with AHERA in a cost-effective manner.
Chances are high that you’re either someone who needs to know about AHERA, or you can think of someone in your school district who should know about AHERA.
A report by Senator Ed Markey in December, 2015, warned that two-thirds of states surveyed “reported having schools that contain asbestos, most of which is also unabated.” (In addition to these asbestos issues, another related report by his office in 2016 warned that “even though [polychlorinated biphenyls] PCBs have been banned in the United States since 1979, up to 26,000 schools around the country contain these chemicals in light ballasts, caulk, and paint.”)
Here are the facts.
What is AHERA?
The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on October 22, 1986. The intention of the Act was to help protect students and staff in the estimated 35,000 schools where potential exposure to asbestos-containing materials existed.
AHERA regulations are still in effect, and the dangers they address still exist. The Act required school districts to identify asbestos-containing building materials on school property, to assess these materials for damage, to create a management plan for each school site containing appropriate responses to any identified hazards, to take action to protect occupants of the sites, and to perform periodic surveillance of asbestos-containing materials.
The local education agency designee is responsible for a number of follow-up tasks, including these:
- Training records for employees, inspection and abatement records, and records of any fiber release episodes must be stored and maintained.
- Annual notifications must be provided to parents and staff. Contractors must be advised about asbestos-containing materials. The annual notification to parents and staff must also include any asbestos-related activities performed for each site.
- Three-year reinspections and six-month surveillances must be completed within the required time frames.
- The asbestos management plans and operations and maintenance programs must be updated, based on the results of inspections.
These requirements are not being met by many school districts nationwide. Those districts should comply without further hesitation. Not doing so endangers the reputation of the schools and the health of anyone who enters them.
AHERA Compliance: 1986 to 2021
Most school districts complied with AHERA at its inception and continued to follow AHERA mandates for the next 15 years, but many began to fall out of compliance in the late 1990s. Since then, that disturbing trend has continued. Many school officials today don’t even know that AHERA exists.
The current situation exists due to a number of probable factors:
- AHERA isn’t the only regulatory requirement for schools related to health and the environment. They also must comply with the Clean Water Act, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (to name a few).
- Security measure upgrades and the COVID-19 pandemic have taken the forefront in school hazard protection concerns. There is often little left in the budget to address other problems.
- The baton often gets dropped during staff position turnovers, whether from retirements or other reasons, and incoming personnel aren’t aware of AHERA or mistakenly believe asbestos is no longer present.
Overriding all of this is the fact that adverse health effects from asbestos exposure typically take years, even decades, to develop. This makes diligent compliance with AHERA all the more critical. Students and staff appear to be healthy now, so there seems to be no real reason for concern.
Furthermore, EPA enforcement of AHERA has tumbled. A 2018 audit by the Office of Inspector General leads with the following statement:
Even though the EPA was responsible for conducting AHERA compliance inspections for the majority of states, it conducted fewer inspections overall than the states responsible for their own inspections. Specifically, from fiscal years 2011 through 2015, the EPA conducted 13 percent of AHERA inspections, whereas states with jurisdiction over their own inspections performed 87 percent. We also found that only one region has a strategy for its TSCA compliance monitoring efforts, as recommended by the TSCA Compliance Monitoring Strategy. Furthermore, EPA regions have either significantly reduced or eliminated resources for their asbestos program. Of the agency’s 10 regions, five only inspect for asbestos in schools when they receive asbestos-related tips or complaints. Without compliance inspections, the EPA cannot know whether schools pose an actual risk of asbestos exposure to students and personnel.
That report asked the EPA to step up their efforts and to “inform local educational agencies, in coordination with the regions, that they must develop and maintain an asbestos management plan, regardless of the presence of an exclusion statement, and monitor compliance.”
In response, the EPA cited limitations on resources and competing priorities as reasons for the lack of AHERA monitoring.
Why Should You Care About AHERA Now?
FACS often receives calls from school districts that need an asbestos inspection for a planned renovation or to comply with a Clean Air Act regulation. When asked about AHERA information (which can be an excellent starting point for the inspection), district staff are often not even aware of the regulation.
The paucity of AHERA enforcement has not escaped notice by watchdog groups, however. A 2018 news release by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) noted that the EPA “has failed to take the required and necessary steps under federal law to protect children from the dangers of asbestos exposure in the nation’s public and private schools.”
While little has changed since the Inspector General’s report, there is no reason to believe AHERA non-compliance will continue to be ignored. Should Senator Markey or another member of Congress demand action or a national news agency begin reporting the story, school districts could begin getting calls from concerned parents, and a “We weren’t aware of that mandate” response would not appease them.
FACS urges all school districts to review their AHERA documentation and move decisively to get squarely on top of the issue. When you protect your staff and students, you protect your school district.
Next Steps for AHERA Compliance
Due to the lack of information from AHERA inspections in the past, missing information regarding abatement work completed, and the general inconsistency that arises from multiple consultants or people within a district working on AHERA compliance activities, many schools need to revisit and redevelop their AHERA strategy.
It is critical to create effective and compliant asbestos management plans, which typically include the sampling of materials, developing an updated operations and maintenance program, training all applicable personnel within the district for compliance, identifying qualified vendors for any necessary remedial actions, and providing required notifications.
A review of your AHERA program will not only facilitate compliance but may also provide information needed to meet other regulatory requirements or to prepare for upcoming construction projects.
FACS can meet with your school’s representative to assist in developing a compliance program that fits your budget, is practical and action-oriented, can provide the best cost-benefit ratio to the district, and will help your staff assume ongoing AHERA management duties.
To get started, call (888) 711-9998 or use the Contact form on the FACS website.