Loose-fill asbestos has been ‘grossly mismanaged’ by successive NSW governments, says the state’s peak body for local councils.
Local Government NSW (LGNSW) said in its submission to the Joint Select Committee inquiry in Loose-Fill Asbestos, which is due to report in February next year, that the state government’s approach to dealing with asbestos so far had caused residents ‘anguish and disappointment’.
“An unfortunate chain of events has left a currently unquantified number of people facing an unintended hazard and fearful of unimaginable potential consequences,” said its submission.
The problem is particularly acute in Queanbeyan, only a stone’s throw from the ACT and the original source of the noxious Mr Fluffy loose-fill insulation, where residents have argued they have suffered equally but they still have no certainty over what will happen to them or to their homes.
The Commonwealth government recently announced a $1 billion concessionary loan to help bankroll the ACT’s buy back and demolition scheme and there have been calls to offer NSW the same deal, principally to provide residents some security and to encourage people to get their homes tested.
Meanwhile, the ACT government has set the ball rolling on its buy back scheme and asked the Australian Property Institute to begin valuing the 1021 homes found to contain Mr Fluffy insulation within its borders.
But the scale of the problem in NSW is not yet known. Figures provided by the Ministry of Health in August suggest that at least 230 NSW homes could be affected, up to 140 of these in Albury, Tumbarumba and Wagga Wagga and 60 in Berrigan.
Fewer than 10 properties are thought to be in Sydney but LGNSW said there was evidence that loose-fill asbestos insulation had been transported to St Ives and North Sydney, which made other homes in the North Sydney and Ku-ring-Gai local council areas suspect.
So far the presence of loose-fill asbestos, which can cause cancers and mesothelioma when airborne, has been confirmed in 22 residential properties in the NSW.
Sixteen of these were in Queanbeyan while the other six were scattered, including one home each in three Sydney councils – Manly, Parramatta and Bankstown.
It’s not just asbestos-filled homes that could be flying under the radar but also schools, council buildings and commercial buildings.
LGNSW’s inquiry submission made it clear that the NSW government needs to take urgent action and learn lessons from the way the ACT has handled its asbestos problem.
The association has backed waiving fees for asbestos disposal, setting up a hotline and offering counselling to NSW residents and maintaining a confidential online database for homes with loose-fill asbestos to protect emergency services staff and tradespeople.
It is not just a state government issue. Councils deal with asbestos in the course of their duties of overseeing land use planning (development applications and demolitions), managing contaminated land and regulating activities like DIY home renovations and waste transport and disposal. They also have to manage an emergency response to asbestos and educate the public.
LGNSW said serious consideration should be given to forcing home vendors to disclose loose-fill insulation when they sell, possibly extending this information to prospective buyers of adjacent properties.
The association also backed fixing labels indicating loose-fill asbestos onto electricity meter box to warn of loose-fill asbestos in a home. The ACT government already provides these free.