Opinion / The Mr Fluffy lessons not learnt

“I am fearful that the Government, as it pushes through this major asbestos program, is failing its community obligations. More particularly, I am fearful for the health of our children in the local community,” writes Yarralumla resident PAUL FLANAGAN, concerned at the way the government plans to remove asbestos waste from the Canberra Brickworks.

THE experience with asbestos through the Mr Fluffy saga reinforces the precautionary principle – we should acknowledge what we don’t know and be cautious in our future actions.  

brickworks siteHowever, actions by the ACT government indicate that they have not learnt any lessons. Even now, as they prepare to remove a large and dangerous asbestos dump at the Canberra Brickworks, little seems to have been learnt.

This dump is known to contain very dangerous forms of friable asbestos.  The current remediation plan leaves many questions unanswered.

The work appears to put local residents at serious potential risk as well as all those along the asbestos removal transport corridors through West Belconnen.

As a local resident close to the remediation work, I ask why haven’t we learnt the lessons?

One possible reason is that the technical reports around such activities do not seem to consider people as people. It is extraordinary that avoiding the devastation of potential asbestos mesothelioma on human lives is simply referred to as reducing the risk that may “impact potential receptors”.

So my children, and my neighbours, are now just simply “potential receptors”.

Even Sir Humphrey of “Yes, Minister” would cringe at this language (but maybe not some of the players in latest ABC “Utopia” series).

And this rather extraordinary language of people simply being “potential receptors” is reflected in attitudes throughout the recently released Remedial Action Plan for the major asbestos removal around the old contaminated Canberra Brickworks site in Yarralumla.

Frankly, Canberra residents should expect more than a “cost effective, risk-based strategy” to “reduce the risk”.  Will the objective be met even if the risk reduction is small and substantial risks remain?  This seems to have been the experience with the initial Mr Fluffy remediation work – better remediation options suggested by CSIRO were considered too costly. We want more than the lacklustre claim that the remedial works will “assist” in making the site suitable for the proposed land use – we want it to be made suitable.

We want more than the lacklustre claim that the remediation works “are not likely to present significant risks to human health and the environment on surrounding properties”.

Surely this was the type of reassurance that was provided the original owner of Mr Fluffy homes. If lessons had been learnt, a higher standard should be applied. If the Government insists digging up the site even before it has agreement on what to do with the site, let us make the work safe for our children and our community.

There is a proposed “Information Session” on the asbestos works at the Canberra Brickworks presented by the ACT Government at 7.00pm on this Wednesday night at the Albert Hall (3 September).  Based on previous processes of consultation, there are doubts about whether this short meeting will allow an adequate coverage of the issues.  Some questions that should be answered in the so-called consultation include the following:

1. Why is the cart being put before the horse? The remediation standards being applied (HIL B) presume eight-storey apartment towers on the site surrounded by paved areas that don’t allow contact with the soil. However, the proposed LDA plans show garden space covering almost half of the area.  If eight-storey apartments are to be built on the site, why is the work limited to a depth of only three metres when underground car parks will need to go deeper? Why fill the remediated site with clean fill if there is then the need to remove the fill for underground car parking. Let’s get agreement on future site development first so as to inform the remediation works. This was the sequencing in the 2013 plans – determine what to do first and get agreement on it, then do the site remediation starting in late 2016.  Why is it being rushed?

2. Is any community consultation being proposed after the Environmental Site Assessment is completed (Stage 1.3)? What is the point of community consultation if it occurs before we have sufficient information on the extent of contamination and therefore the choices about appropriate remediation?

3. Why is the investigation of hazardous materials being limited to such a small proportion of the total planned Brickworks development site? Most people agree that there is little information about the extent of hazardous material spread over the 100-year industrial history of the site. The loose asbestos sheeting is a clear danger, but there are concerns that asbestos could be in much of the fill around the entire brickworks site.

4. Why aren’t modern air-monitoring standards being applied (instantaneous readings to inform timely action if a problem) and why aren’t air monitoring sites being located in local residential areas?

5. Who actually has the duty of care for local residents? The consultants seem to primarily report to the successful contractor rather than the Government .

6. Why aren’t the actual transport corridors for the vast amount of material being shifted included in the plan? Local residents consider that there may be more effective transport corridors that would reduce the community’s risks.

7. Why is the asbestos waste simply to be covered by a tarpaulin when stored on site, but must be covered by at least 0.5 metres of soil when it is transported to any tip site even overnight?

8. Where is the budget to indicate that all of the planned remedial works will actually be undertaken?

9. How can we be assured that the site will be left safe when the proposed screening laboratories cannot ensure the required standards are being met (the so called LOR is greater than the assessment criteria for asbestos contamination)?

For some reason, possibly related to the budget challenges faced by the very expensive proposed light rail system, this extraordinarily sensitive asbestos remedial work is being rushed through. My fear is that history will show that we have not yet learnt our lessons about handling asbestos waste. Mr Fluffy families are already feeling the pain of dealing with the hazards of asbestos. I had hoped lessons would be learnt.

I am fearful that the Government, as it pushes through this major asbestos program, is failing its community obligations. More particularly, I am fearful for the health of our children in the local community.

Please, let us not rush, let us lift the bar on how to treat asbestos risk early even if it costs more, let us seriously talk to those affected.

The Wednesday night meeting should not be the end point for community discussions. But I fear that budget imperatives will mean the Government’s only priority will be to rush into a remediation program so they can get the dollars from selling a major “suburban outfill” development (it certainly should not qualify as “urban infill”).  Lessons not learnt.

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