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State doubles up on asbestos oversight

Sean Ryan

The state should have combined its two asbestos-inspection programs, abatement company owners say, before hitting up contractors for new certification fees.

Wisconsin has two sets of regulators for asbestos-abatement projects. The Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services regulates worker and contractor certification, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources polices on-site compliance with asbestos removal rules. Both department have teams of inspectors that visit project sites.

“I think there’s some repetition between the agencies, and I think things could probably be run more efficiently,” said Mike Robinson, president of Robinson Brothers Environmental Inc., a Waunakee-based asbestos-removal company.

The state this year increased fees and required a $400, two-year company certification to pay for the DHFS program. The money will pay for the DHFS office that certifies companies and workers, and inspects their sites to regulate compliance. It is the first increase in fees since 1988.

Shelley Bruce, DHFS asbestos and lead certification supervisor, said her department and the DNR have not investigated if they could save money by merging the programs. State law dictates the departments’ responsibilities, so lawmakers would have to order the merger, she said.

“We just did not do that,” Bruce said. “There’s been no request from an upper level, from the governor’s office or anywhere else saying these programs need to be merged.”

State agents involved in the DNR asbestos program were not available for comment.

Bruce said the DHFS has three full-time employees who inspect sites and a vacancy for a fourth inspector.

The department also has three people on staff who split their time between inspecting sites and performing other duties.

It’s confusing to deal with two agencies for permitting projects, Robinson said. But beyond the paperwork difficulties for companies, the state could probably save money if it had one team of inspectors regulating asbestos compliance to permitting and abatement practices, he said.

“Certainly, the opportunity presents itself,” he said. “But will it ever happen? No. Governments don’t know how to cut.”

Bruce said her department and the DNR this year are unrolling an online permitting system that will increase efficiency and save paperwork costs. Contractors previously had to send applications to the DNR or DHFS for projects depending on the amount of asbestos involved in a project, and the two departments shared the information. But the new online database the DNR created will let contractors apply online, and both departments can access the information, she said.

“We merge, wherever we can, our activities and our systems,” Bruce said. “And with the notification, I think that was a wonderful merger.”

But an across-the-board consolidation carries new costs as well as opportunities for savings, Bruce said.

There are upfront administrative expenses involved in merging operations, she said, and the state must study whether it would create long-term savings.

Beyond that, Bruce said, her department also regulates lead and other certification programs, so it would be difficult to split the operation.

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