Asbestos: the hidden danger lurking in your backyard
October 20, 2014 at 11:32 AM
Property owner Anthony Zizza wasn't home. His neighbours later told him the trucks came in the dead of night. He complained to the man organising the structural works on his property, saying the noise was waking the neighbours.
It was the first inkling that something was not right. But it was not until months later that Mr Zizza discovered the criminal activity that had taken place on his land – the dumped soil had been contaminated with building waste and asbestos.
Before Mr Zizza or authorities realised what was happening 3840 tonnes of material had been delivered and randomly dispersed across the property on Goolara Road.
It was the prospect of making hundreds of thousands of dollars' profit that led to the illegal dumping operation.
If the contaminated soil had been dumped properly, the cost at an approved waste facility would have been $269,952. This is based on a NSW waste levy of $70.30 per tonne for contaminated materials.
The man who organised the trucks, Julian Ashmore, pleaded guilty in the Land and Environment Court in Sydney to illegal dumping, and admitted that he knew what he was doing was wrong and that Mr Zizza had no idea what was happening.
He told Environmental Protection Agency investigators and the Land and Environment Court that he took part in the dumping because he was scared for his life and that of his family if he did not comply with the instigator of the illegal scheme.
There is a lot of money to be made by bypassing the regulations and quietly getting rid of the contaminated waste. Many argue this is a driving factor behind the continued practice of illegal dumping.
Illegal dumping of asbestos has been a major problem around Australia particularly in NSW. The EPA has set up illegal dumping squads to try to stop rogue operators.
The EPA has also given almost $800,000 to 24 local government areas to run a pilot program called the Householders Asbestos Disposal Scheme. It is a 12-month trial which will run until next July allowing householders to deposit their asbestos waste at the council-approved facility for free. However the results won't be known until late next year.
Asbestos products were totally banned in 2003 but the health-related problems from breathing in fibres are continuing as more asbestos is found in old homes, work sites and in old dumping grounds.
Inhaling the fibres can cause mesothelioma and lung cancer which can take up to 40 years to develop and for which there is no known cure.
The Australian Diseases Foundation of Australia (ADFA) has warned that one in every three houses in Australia built before 1982 has asbestos in it and thousands of workshops and homes have been built with asbestos roofs, floors and walls.
The foundation president Barry Robson applauds the move by councils to take asbestos waste for free but he says it has not totally eradicated the problem and there has been a number of dumping incidents that he knows of recently in southern Sydney.
Although things are improving, he says, the culture is slow to change.
"What we would like to see is like they are doing in Western Australia – having asbestos free days at all local tips," says Mr Robson.
A 2012 review of the waste levy by KPMG found that there was no "conclusive evidence" that linked the levy to illegal dumping. The report found most illegal dumping was done by householders renovating on a small scale.
In a state government response to the widespread problem of asbestos, a cross-agency organisation, the Heads of Asbestos Co-ordination Authority (HACA), was established and has been working on a statewide plan targeting priority areas of research, risk communication, prevention and co-ordination to ensure safe management of asbestos and try to reduce the high incidence of asbestos-related disease.
HACA has become involved in co-ordinating responses to high-profile asbestos incidents including Mr Fluffy, the former contractor that used asbestos fibres for insulation in the roofs of many homes in Canberra and parts of NSW. It also looks at major natural disasters which cause widespread asbestos contamination such as the Blue Mountains fires last year. The chairman of HACA, Peter Dunphy, says his group has shown the value of cross-agency collaboration and has developed strong relationships with national and state government agencies, local councils, other key stakeholders and the public.
Mr Robson says new protocols which have been put in place by HACA are working well, as was demonstrated during the fires in Coonabarabran, Kiama and the Blue Mountains.
"It all came together with the agencies," he said. "It was brilliant. In the Blue Mountains they moved 40,000 tonnes of suspected contaminated rubble. Things like that have never been done before."
But while government responses to asbestos contamination issues are improving, the health-related issues are continuing to rise with the much-talked about third wave of asbestos disease victims emerging in Australia – a phenomenon which has not yet peaked. The first wave were workers who were mining the fibres and plant workers turning it into a range of building products.
The latest research shows that an increasing number of younger women are part of that wave and Associate Professor Rick van der Zwan, from Southern Cross University, said the rate of diagnosis of asbestos-related disease was increasing. Younger people are contracting the disease after being exposed as children to their fathers' work outfits and as a result of family home renovations since the 1970s.
A parliamentary inquiry has been set up to investigate the use of asbestos by Mr Fluffy.
The cross-party inquiry will try to establish how many homes may have been affected. Mr Fluffy asbestos was pumped into roof spaces of houses in the ACT and some NSW areas in the 1960s and 1970s. A Commonwealth clean-up program was established in the 1980s and 1990s to try to remove the asbestos from ACT houses, but houses in NSW did not get the same assistance.
The government is now offering free testing and advice, during the next 12 months, on risk control for anyone who suspects they may have the Mr Fluffy product in their home.
However, Mr Robson says he has been receiving worried calls from home owners too scared to even reveal what suburb they live in.
He has urged them to come forward and get the testing. Residents can contact WorkCover NSW on 13 10 50 to arrange testing.
Meanwhile, Mr Zizza says that three years later the situation has not been resolved and the contaminated soil remains on his property. He says although he is innocent, his land has been ruined and he has fears for the health and safety of the families with children who live nearby.
By Natalie O'Brien, Sydney Morning Herald
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