Asbestos is without doubt a health hazard to Utah school administrators these days. It's causing them a $50 million headache.

The state's school districts are scrambling to meet a deadline imposed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to inspect all buildings, identify asbestos and develop plans to remove or encapsulate it so loose fibers don't pose a health risk to those in the buildings.Such plans must be submitted to the state's Bureau of Air Quality by Oct. 12. To date, only one of Utah's 40 districts has completed the requirement, said Larry Larkin of the bureau.

The cost of inspecting 46 million square feet of school buildings statewide, plus taking abatement steps, has been estimated as high as $50 million - in a period when school budgets are tighter than a clergyman's collar.

"It's going to tax their manpower and budgets, without a doubt," said Bill Boren, state school facilities specialist.

Larkin said the bureau also is seeking state authority to enforce the EPA's requirements for public schools, rather than having federal personnel from District 8 do the oversight. An application for state authority will be made after the state has gone through the rule-making procedure, including public hearings. The extra work, however, would put a burden on his small staff, he said.

The school districts had pinned their hopes on national efforts to extend the deadline. Several attempts have been made to forestall the EPA edict. However, in a recent letter to Maurine Jensen, president of the Jordan School Board, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said " . . . it appears unlikely that any extension of the deadline for compliance will be enacted by Congress."

As an alternative, Superintendent James R. Moss of the State Office of Education has proposed to Gov. Norm Bangerter that $10 million be made available through the governor's proposed "rainy day" fund - an idea that is still awaiting the pleasure of the state's legislators. Moss said he will support the rainy day fund during the special legislative session that began Tuesday, in hopes that asbestos abatement might be seen a worthy expenditure for some of that money.

Most districts are resigned to the need to comply with the EPA requirements and are forging ahead with building inspections. They have had some financial help from the state office, based on assessed valuation, square footage and the age of buildings. (Older buildings are most likely to contain asbestos). A small EPA grant to the air quality bureau also has been divided among the districts to help them get personnel trained to do the inspection work. Workers must be certified under a state program to deal with asbestos.

Boren said urban school districts might have more significant problems. They have had to build new schools to accommodate growth, and have not been able to replace old structures that are more likely to contain asbestos. Most of the state's rural districts have built new buildings since the use of asbestos in construction materials was banned.

Tooele District is an exception, said Superintendent Michael Jacobsen. Of the 17 schools in his district, he expects 16 will require asbestos abatement.

Jacobsen has already had a costly experience with the material. Dugway Elementary was closed for more than a month and its students housed temporarily in the local high school because of asbestos. The asbestos, in insulation materials coating heating pipes in a tunnel under the school, had actually been found in an earlier survey of the school. A contractor hired to remove it had not completed the job. After parents raised an outcry, a second contractor was hired to do the work. The district is still trying to resolve the difficulties the problem created, he said.

"Now it's costing us from an energy standpoint," Jacobsen said. Removal of the insulation has made the heating system less efficient - a question other schools may face as work is done.

Granite District, the state's largest, has six people working on inspections this summer - four of them regular district maintenance employees who have been trained to do the asbestos assessments. The district has lost their services elsewhere for the duration of the abatement project, said Carl Christiansen, director of buildings and grounds.

Davis District chose to contract with a private company to do the preliminary work - a $300,000 option.

The cost of a single air sample costs $30. The EPA directive has been a windfall for companies that analyze the samples, Christiansen said. Special equipment will have to be purchased to clean up after removal of asbestos from buildings.

Many of the administrators feel the costs of finding asbestos and dealing with it are far greater than the potential health hazard warrants. Federal agencies told administrators during a national meeting that the upgraded standards - which will cost into the billions of dollars nationwide - are expected to save half a life a year.

Scott Bean, associate state superintendent, agreed, "It's become an emotional issue that plays on the fears of people all out of proportion to potential hazards to health." Asbestos in vehicle brake linings and other commercial sources poses more hazard than in the building materials used in schools, he suggested.

"They (the EPA) have created a ridiculous and contradictory standard."