Rod Little near the government owned site reserved for an indigenous bush healing farm near Tidbinbilla.

Rod Little near the government owned site reserved for an indigenous bush healing farm near Tidbinbilla. Photo: Rohan Thomson

The chairman of the ACT’s elected indigenous body says he was not warned of asbestos contamination at the site of a bush healing farm his constituents have spent years fighting for.

The Ngunnawal bush healing farm, a specialised Indigenous drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre, finally started construction two months ago, following a protracted legal battle that had stalled the project for years.

Last week, it was publicly revealed that asbestos contamination had been discovered at the site at Miowera, a property in the Tidbinbilla Valley, something the government says is common across development sites in the ACT.

ACT Health contacted the subcontractor and work was halted on the farm on December 2.

Advertisement

Local indigenous community leaders have long pushed for such a facility, arguing it is an essential place of healing needed to help the rehabilitation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the ACT.

Yet Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elected Body chairman Rod Little said his organisation, which acts as a voice for indigenous people in the ACT, was not told of the asbestos problems. He said he only found out about the site’s contamination through news reports.

But the government says that other members of the elected body were informed of the contamination issues, even if Mr Little was not.

Health Minister Simon Corbell said the two members were told of the remediation at the site through their involvement on the advisory board for the project itself.

Mr Little now fears the contamination will push up costs and cause further delays to the farm, which he says is needed to help stop suffering within local communities.

“To only learn about the most recent developments in the paper, it’s concerning,” Mr Little said.

“We’ve been established … to have a relationship with the government about matters that impact on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.”

“The elected body represents the whole of the community, and this is a project which is supposed to benefit the whole of the community.”

Mr Corbell said the discovery of such asbestos was common across development sites in the ACT.

He said it was neither “unusual or exceptional” to find such contamination.

“ACT Health has established mechanisms to communicate with representatives of the ACT indigenous community,” he said.

“Regular information sharing and consultation with the indigenous community will continue as this project develops.”

Mr Little has urged the government to commit to the same number of beds as originally planned, even if the contamination drives up the costs of the project.

He’s also warned the government it should not delay looking at alternative sites if any rising costs make the site unviable.

The land was purchased by the government in 2008, but has faced repeated planning objections by neighbouring landowners.

Planning Minister Mick Gentleman used his call-in powers to override those objections in October with work beginning in November.

The asbestos contamination at the 320-hectare site was due to remnants of two bonded asbestos sheet houses that were razed in the 2003 Canberra bushfires.

Asbestos fencing has also been bulldozed over the years, leaving asbestos footings in the soil, while asbestos sheeting from the old Cotter Pub also remains, as does asbestos which has been dumped in a landfill gully.

Despite the contamination, ACT Health believes the exposure risk to workers and nearby landowners is “extremely low”.

“Its presence at the Ngunnawal Bush Healing Farm site is being managed in an appropriate way, with an asbestos management plan in place,” Mr Corbell said.

“Remediation of bonded asbestos on site is part of the current tender package for this project.”

Mr Little said ACT Health first contacted him on Thursday afternoon.

He said it was important for the government to maintain communication with the indigenous elected body, which is currently in the process of negotiating a whole of government agreement.