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HomeNewsAsbestos in Allambie Primary School the latest among 32 sites of contamination

Asbestos in Allambie Primary School the latest among 32 sites of contamination

Hazardous Materials (HAZMAT) protective screens were erected around a section of the central playground in Allambie Heights Public School on Friday 16 February, after a piece of bonded asbestos was found in a garden bed.

There is an update to this story here

The discovery is the latest among 32 locations identified by the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA). It is alleged that all locations received asbestos-contaminated mulch from one particular supplier (see below), though this supplier disputes the claim.

So far the sites include four schools, two hospitals, a shopping centre, a few construction sites and a light rail route.

Three parks in Surry Hills are also among the most recent sites where asbestos-contaminated garden mulch was unearthed (see full list below). Last week EPA inspectors visited Belmore Park, Harmony Park and Victoria Park; the latter discovery forcing the cancellation of Mardi Gras Fair Day, scheduled for the 17-18 February weekend.

Only one site on the Northern Beaches is confirmed at this stage, but NSW Deputy Premier Prue Car said on Monday that the supply chain had proven complex and more sites may become known as investigations continue.

The Deputy Premier Prue Car was asked on Monday morning, 19 February, “How concerned are you that we’ll have multiple schools closed by the end of the week?” to which she replied, “I remain extremely concerned about this as do, you know, all the parents and teachers across New South Wales. We’re working very diligently to ensure that every school we identify that may have used [contaminated mulch]  is tested.

“As those tests come back, if they are positive, and the site can be cordoned off, then we really want children to remain at school.”

What is asbestos?

Banned in Australia since December 2003, asbestos is a fibrous silicate material that, if inhaled, can cause debilitating and often fatal lung conditions.

It is important to note that the type of asbestos being found in public locations – bonded or non-friable asbestos –  is generally only considered a health risk if disturbed.

Friable asbestos was frequently used in household walls and ceilings throughout the 20th century because of its insulating properties and resistance to fire.

How did this all start?

Rozelle contamination

The EPA launched an investigation in January after bonded asbestos was discovered in mulch used as landfill at the new Rozelle Parklands, 10 hectares of open space adjacent to the new Rozelle Interchange in Sydney’s Inner West.

Transport for NSW contracted a joint venture between John Holland and CPB Contractors (JHCPB) to build the Rozelle Interchange, which in turn used sub-contractors for other parts of the massive project, including the neighbouring Parklands.

Rozelle Interchange and Parklands under construction. Photo: Alec Smart

The Parklands, consisting of sports fields, a village green, bush trails, wetlands, a boardwalk, BBQ + picnic areas, and shared cycle-pedestrian paths built on the disused former Rozelle Rail Yards, was officially opened to the public on 17 December 2023.

On 2 January a member of the public discovered what appeared to be a piece of bonded asbestos alongside a children’s play area and notified Transport for NSW – whose response team reportedly didn’t read the email until 8 January.

EPA inspectors then tested 114 samples of mulch taken from around the Parklands and 17 tested positive to asbestos.

After fencing-off the site, in an official statement on 15 January 2024, the NSW Government’s environment ‘watchdog’ declared they suspected “more than 10 tonnes of material containing asbestos, being asbestos waste,” was spread around the Parklands.

The EPA launched a criminal inquiry in January, which has subsequently expanded into the largest investigation in the organisation’s history.

Unfortunately, it was soon discovered the asbestos-contaminated mulch was spread much further afield than Rozelle, including the primary school in Allambie Heights.

The enclosed section in Allambie Heights Public School playground where asbestos was found. Photo: Alec Smart

On 15 February, the NSW Government announced the formation of an Asbestos Taskforce, consisting of a consortium of government agencies, They were formed to investigate potentially hundreds of cases of asbestos contamination and identify priority sites, such as public parks and schools like Allambie Heights Primary, that may pose a risk to the public.

In a statement the EPA declared: “We have identified several schools as priority sites for testing after the investigation revealed mulch from the same manufacturer that supplied mulch to the Rozelle Interchange had been used at the schools.

“We are supporting the schools and the Department of Education to urgently conduct site inspections, testing, and ensure the schools are safe for students, teachers, and visitors.”

While multiple mulch suppliers were considered and checked, the EPA investigation led inspectors to Greenlife Resource Recovery Facility (GRRF), which operate from a rural site in the outer-west suburb of Bringelly (mid-way between Camden and Penrith).

According to their website, “Greenlife Resource Recovery produces sustainable landscape supplies by recycling various waste streams.”

Although the EPA’s chief executive, Tony Chappel, admitted that it was a “complex, large supply chain” that brought mixed materials to the contaminated mulch, only mulch from Greenlife Resource Recovery has so far been found to contain asbestos.

Greenlife have been issued a Court Prevention Notice to halt their distribution, which they are currently contesting. Greenlife (GRRF) assert their innocence.

Allambie Heights Public School’s garden bed (centre, enclosed) where asbestos was found. Photo: Alec Smart

In a Media Statement released on 14 February 2023, GRRF announced, “The EPA visited GRRF’s site on 15 January 2024 and took 12 samples of mulch and soil that had been manufactured for John Holland to use at Rozelle and other locations. In addition, John Holland had its independent field testing lab experts conduct more than 20 tests before GRRF was permitted to deliver mulch to the Rozelle site.”

The statement continues, “GRRF remains confident that when its mulch is delivered to contractors for landscaping it is free of asbestos. The company has no visibility of, and does not control, how its mulch is used on a site once delivered. For example, GRRF has no control over whether its products are mixed with other mulches, materials or existing soil that has been disturbed.

“Further, GRRF understands that many of the government projects and sites on which its mulch has been used and asbestos has been identified were going through or have gone through processes of remediation. GRRF understands in many cases this remediation was to address historical contamination with substances likely to be present including asbestos.”

List of asbestos-contaminated sites, EPA confirmed:

* Allambie Heights Public School (will remain open, small area cordoned off) * Liverpool West Public School (will be closed 2-3 weeks, but school moved to another site) * Penrith Christian School, Orchard Hills (will remain open, area cordoned off) * St Luke’s Catholic College, Marsden Park (school closed)

* Belmore Park, Haymarket * Campbelltown Hospital * Harmony Park, Surry Hills * Industrie Warehouse, Bankstown * Munn Park, Millers Point * Regatta Park, Emu Plains * St John of God Richmond Hospital * Woolworths, Kellyville Grove Shopping Centre

Transport for NSW sites: * Rozelle Parklands * Sydney Metro Sydenham to Bankstown Railway Corridor * Parramatta Light Rail * Prospect Highway Interchange * Nowra Bridge Upgrade

Two residential estates under construction: * Victoria Park, Camperdown * Wiley Park, cnr Canterbury Rd and King Georges Rd

Three other sites are not being identified because they are private residential properties.

NSW Environment Protection Authority – asbestos investigation updates: https://www.epa.nsw.gov.au

Munn Reserve, Millers Point, another of the 32 sites where asbestos-contaminated mulch has been found. Photo: Alec Smart