January 23, 2019

Indigenous leader criticises lack of warning about asbestos contamination on bush healing farm site

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.


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.

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Indigenous leader criticises lack of warning about asbestos contamination on bush healing farm site

Asbestos pushed in Asia

The executives mingled over tea and biscuits, and the chatter was upbeat. Their industry, they said at a conference in the Indian capital, saves lives and brings roofs, walls and pipes to some of the world’s poorest people.

Their product? Asbestos.

Outlawed in much of the developed world, it is still going strong in the developing one. In India alone, the world’s biggest asbestos importer, it’s a $US2 billion ($A2.16 billion) industry providing 300,000 jobs.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO), World Health Organisation(WTO), medical researchers and more than 50 countries say the mineral should be banned; asbestos fibres lodge in the lungs and cause disease. The ILO estimates 100,000 people die from workplace exposure every year.

But the industry executives at the asbestos conference, held in a luxury New Delhi hotel, said the risks are overblown.

Instead, they described their business as a form of social welfare for hundreds of thousands of impoverished Indians still living in flimsy, mud-and-thatch huts.

“We’re here not only to run our businesses, but to also serve the nation,” said Abhaya Shankar, a director of India’s Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers Association.

Yet there are some poor Indians trying to keep asbestos out of their communities.

In the farming village of Vaishali, in the eastern state of Bihar, residents became outraged by the construction of an asbestos factory in their backyard.

They had learned about the dangers of asbestos from a school boy’s science textbooks, and worried asbestos fibres would blow into their tiny thatch homes. Their children, they said, could contract lung diseases most Indian doctors would never test for, let alone treat.

They petitioned for the factory to be halted. But in December 2012, its permit was renewed, inciting thousands to rally on a main road for 11 hours. Amid the chaos, a few dozen villagers demolished the partially built factory.

“It was a moment of desperation,” a teacher said on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from the company. “There was no other way for us to express our outrage.”

The company later filed lawsuits, still pending, accusing several villagers of vandalism and theft.

Durable and heat-resistant, asbestos was long a favourite insulation material in the West.

Medical experts say inhaling any form of asbestos can lead to deadly diseases 20-40 years later including lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis, or the scarring of the lungs.

Dozens of countries including Australia, Japan, Argentina and all European Union nations have banned it entirely. Others like the US have severely curtailed its use.

The asbestos lobby says the mineral has been unfairly maligned by Western nations that used it irresponsibly. It also says one of the six forms of asbestos is safe: chrysotile, or white asbestos, which accounts for more than 95 per cent of all asbestos used since 1900.

Medical experts reject this.

“All types of asbestos fibre are causally implicated in the development of various diseases and premature death,” the Societies of Epidemiology said in a 2012 position statement.

Russia now provides most asbestos on the world market. Meanwhile, rich nations are suffering health and economic consequences from past use. And, billions have been spent stripping asbestos from buildings.

Umesh Kumar, a roadside vendor in Bihar’s capital, has long known there are health hazards to the three by one metre asbestos cement sheets he sells for 600 rupees ($A10.55) each. But he doesn’t guide customers to the 800 rupee tin or fibreglass alternatives.

“This is a country of poor people, and for less money they can have a roof over their heads,” he said.

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Asbestos pushed in Asia

Playing in the shadow of asbestos mine dumps

The word asbestos can clear a room, but in the case of Bulembu – a small town in northern Swaziland – it was the end of its production that cleared an entire town. Once used in thousands of products, from brake pads to putty and cement, the fibrous mineral has been outlawed in more than 50 countries in the two decades since it was linked to a range of deadly lung diseases, including asbestosis and cancer.

Bulembu is positioned among stark, grey 150m-high asbestos dumps that experts say could poison the lungs of residents, and kill them slowly and painfully over decades.
Today the town is home to about 350 Aids orphans and, according to its website, there could be 1 000 by 2020.

Between 1939 and 2001, Bulembu operated as a chrysotile, or white asbestos, mine. In the 1960s Havelock Mine, as it was then known, was one the biggest producers of asbestos in the world, churning out 42 000 tonnes a year at its peak in 1976.

By 1991, Turner & Newall, the United Kingdom-based conglomerate that operated the mine, was facing massive compensation claims from lawyers in South Africa and Britain as evidence of the danger of working in its mines and factories became undeniable. Payouts of these claims, combined with plummeting demand for asbestos, eventually saw the company fold.

HVL Asbestos Swaziland then took over the operations, but went insolvent in 2001 after 10 years of operation. All but about 50 of the 10 000 residents left the town in a matter of days, according to several people who lived there, and it became a ghost town. Over the following years, schools, hundreds of houses, a members’ club and a movie theatre stood empty and slowly decayed.

But all that changed five years later in 2006 when the town, with all its infrastructure and 1 700ha of surrounding land, was taken over by Bulembu Ministries Swaziland, a nonprofit Christian organisation.

The price? A bargain basement $1-million – at an exchange rate of R6 to $1 – according to Neal Rijkenberg, one of the directors of the Bulembu Ministries, who donated his 50% of the property to the ministry.

Legal wrangles
Andrew le Roux, a former executive of Bulembu Ministries Swaziland, said the low price was owed, among other things, to protracted legal wrangles with the former owners and the need to restore the town’s infrastructure.

Despite the dumps that line one side of the town, the ministry deemed it safe to establish an orphanage there. Asked why he had chosen to use Bulembu, Rijkenberg said: “I am a Christian. I felt that God had brought me here.”

Aids orphans walk to a school in Bulembu, past a potentially deadly mound containing asbestos, a leftover from the days when the substance was widely mined and used. (Photos: Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Rijkenberg and Le Roux said much of the funding for the town came from international philanthropists. Asked whether any of the donors were aware of the potential danger of asbestos to the children, Le Roux said: “Of course; a lot of them sit on the board.” But Rijkenberg and Le Roux refused to provide names or contact details of any of the philanthropic individuals, saying such queries could cause funding to dry up.

Rijkenberg and the other members of the ministry believe the town is safe. He said air tests had convinced them there was no danger from asbestos in the environment. “Show me one child who’s contracted an asbestos-related disease,” he said.

According to Rijkenberg and Le Roux, the dumps are covered with a hard crust, so no dust blows into the town during windy weather.

Mining-related illnesses
During just such a dry and windy time of year Jock McCulloch came to Bulembu. A professor at Australia’s RMIT University who specialises in occupational health and politics, McCulloch has written extensively about mining-related illnesses in Southern Africa.

In the opening paragraphs of an academic paper published in the
Journal of Southern African Studies on the history of the Havelock/Bulembu mine, McCulloch writes: “The day I visited … in July 2002 … it was windy, and fibre was being blown over the entire settlement, including the primary school.”

Mail & Guardian visited Bulembu recently; there were hundreds of square metres of loose, friable grey soil at the bases of the dumps.

The Aids orphans live with their caretakers in the neatly painted houses in the Swaziland town, which was all but empty until recently.

McCulloch last week gave a rough estimate that the dumps were made up of between 3% and 5% asbestos, saying: “The mining process was crude and not all the fibre was mined out.”

He said fibres are visible to the naked eye in the dust of the dumps. “I wouldn’t have taken my child [on to the dump] because of the latency period [for diseases such as mesothelioma to set in].”

Rijkenberg said there is no evidence that any of the nonmining residents of Havelock/Bulembu have ever contracted an asbestos-related disease.

‘Charging elephant’
But Tia Litshka (45), whose father worked on the mine, said he and three of his colleagues had died of lung complications. “I wouldn’t go back there,” she told the M&G in August. “It’s like standing in front of a charging elephant. It’s completely irresponsible what [the ministry] is doing [by bringing the orphans there].”

Set in the mineral-rich Makhonjwa mountain range that runs from Barberton into Swaziland, the area around Bulembu is visually spectacular. Entering from Piggs Peak to the east, you pass through a boom gate at the town entrance. A sawmill appears on the right and then an idyllic scene of dairy cows grazing in green fields unfolds on the left. A multicoloured grid of square houses covers a slope down a valley facing directly on to the bare asbestos dumps.

Opinion is divided as to what constitutes a ‘safe’ level for asbestos, but many believe a zero level is the only safe one.

The town is spotless, with pristine, whitewashed buildings up and down the hills on both sides of the road. Several are adorned with religious slogans. The town is eerily empty, apart from a few adults walking along the roads.

The original lodge has been renovated and offers plush rooms at the modest price of R500 a night and light lunches. No alcohol is served.

The children, who are brought to the ministry from the Swazi welfare society, stay in houses with a caregiver. There are approximately six children in each house. Last year Unicef estimated that the number of Aids orphans in Swaziland stood at 78 000.

“The damage will continue long after the child has left,” said Dr Jim te Water Naude, a Cape-Town-based medical specialist in public health and a member of the Asbestos Relief Trust (ART). The trust arose from an out-of-court settlement agreement between asbestos miners such as Gencor, African Chrysotile Asbestos Limited and Hanova Mining Holdings, and several claimants who had fallen ill with asbestos-related diseases. The ART helped to evaluate claims and provide adequate compensation for stricken former mine employees.

Least toxic
Chrysotile is claimed by many to be the least toxic type of asbestos, but the jury has been out on this for decades. Scientists and experts tend to fall into two distinct groups – those who believe it is almost harmless to work with, as long as certain procedures (including wearing protective clothing and close-fitting masks) are followed, and those who say even minimal environmental exposure puts residents at risk of lung diseases including asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. The latter two are almost certain death sentences, resulting from malignant growths in the lining of the lungs.

Asked whether he would ever live in Bulembu, Te Water Naude responded with an emphatic “no”. Although chrysotile asbestos has the least relative toxicity of the six types of the fibre, “all asbestos is carcinogenic”, he said. Bulembu Ministries’s former director Richard le Roux responded: “ART needs to say this to justify their existence.”

Asbestos stones on a dump in Bulembu, south of Barberton.

Bulembu Ministries has had air tests conducted three times since June 2012 by Ergosaf, a South African division of United States-based LexisNexis, which does risk assessments for governments and private industries, among other things. The results of the tests showed levels of 0.01 fibres/ml of air, but according to Naude the international standard is half that, and in Australia it is zero.

Dr Samuel Magagula, director of the ministry of health in Swaziland, said the issue of potential asbestos-related danger to residents of Bulembu has never been raised in Parliament. “It has never been brought to our attention,” he said.

No policy
Swaziland has no policy on the limits of environmental asbestos, according to Magagula, but he said if a policy was implemented it would be guided by the World Health Organisation.

Dr Kevin Makadzange, health promotion officer at the World Health Organisation’s Swaziland office, said the United Nations’s asbestos limit is zero. Academic papers from around the world concur that there is no safe level of asbestos.

Unlike the Msauli asbestos mine across the border in South Africa, there has been no attempt to rehabilitate the dumps at Bulembu.

Piet van Zyl, an Asbestos Relief Trust trustee and a career asbestos miner, said he would not have advised the ministry to establish the orphanage in a town like Bulembu.

“I would have hesitated bringing kids there [but] it was a logical place to use,” because of the existing infrastructure. Of the controversy about chrysotile causing mesothelioma, he said: “I’m not saying it’s safe, but you’d have to breathe in a helluva lot to get [mesotheliomia from chrysotile].” But Te Water Naude says there is no doubt chrysotile causes lung cancer and asbestosis.

“The children must just be educated about where they can go and what the dangers are,” Van Zyl said. “They must be told what can happen if they play in contaminated areas. [Management] must not let them near the dumps or any of the structures that might contain asbestos.”

Rehabilitated mines
Van Zyl worked for many years for the African Chrysotile Asbestos company at the Msauli mine, 5km across the border in South Africa. Although Msauli was the bigger of the two mines, it appears smaller and is harder to see on Google Maps.

Van Zyl says this is because it is covered with vegetation, having been extensively rehabilitated. He said the levels of environmental asbestos are practically zero in that area.

It has extensive infrastructure, but Msauli is almost completely abandoned, despite efforts to make it a tourist resort. “People won’t come near it when they hear it is an asbestos mine,” Van Zyl said. “You would never find Americans there.”

It’s not a bad thing: “We don’t want it to be disturbed. Nobody should be there in case they cause damage to the dumps and expose the asbestos again.”

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Playing in the shadow of asbestos mine dumps

Asbestos policy up for comment

Dubbo City Council has put a draft policy for dealing with deadly substance asbestos on exhibition for public comment.

The document specifies the organisation’s responsibilities to minimise exposure to residents, the public and council employees and has some information for “DIY” enthusiasts.

Asbestos is found in most homes built before the mid-1980s and can cause deadly cancers if the fibres become airborne and are inhaled.

Council environmental control manager Debbie Archer said council has a dual role in minimising exposure to asbestos as far as reasonably practical for residents and the public as well as council’s employees.

“The draft asbestos policy outlines the role of council and other organisations in managing asbestos, the relevant regulatory powers as well as general advice for residents on renovating homes that may contain asbestos,” Ms Archer said.

“There are five key areas of responsibility for council in relation to minimising risk of asbestos exposure – educating residents, managing land, managing waste, regulator responsibilities, and responsibility to workers.

The manager said health risks related to asbestos were low if it were left undisturbed, but the risk rose when undertaking home renovations or demolition work, particular in buildings constructed before 1990.

“It is important to remain vigilant when dealing with potentially hazardous material and the draft policy clearly articulates council’s responsibilities,” Ms Archer said.

In 2012 then-local government minister Don Page said there had already been at least 4700 deaths from mesothelioma, a type of cancer associated with exposure to asbestos, in Australia since records began in the early 1980s, with more than 25,000 more expected to die from it over the next 40 years. The draft asbestos policy can be downloaded from the council website www.dubbo.nsw.gov.au and public submissions close on June 9.

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Asbestos policy up for comment

School shut down over asbestos risk

Bayfield School, Herne Bay. Photo / Jason Dorday.
Bayfield School, Herne Bay. Photo / Jason Dorday.

An Auckland primary school has been shut down by its board of trustees due to an asbestos risk.

The decision to close Bayfield School in Herne Bay was made last night to mitigate the risk of asbestos dust from a nearby building site where demolition and asbestos removal work was being carried out.

The decision was made by its board of trustees following meetings with the school’s principal Sheryl Fletcher, the Ministry of Education, project contractors and Work Safe NZ – the organisation responsible for health and safety on the building works.

In a statement, school representatives said in those meetings, the board sought assurance from the project team that health and safety issues associated with the agreed project plan for the removal of asbestos were being adequately dealt with.

The ministry was the contract counterparty on the work and the board’s role was that of an observer, the statement said.

“To date we have been satisfied with the process being applied but during the course of today we have become increasingly concerned with the position.

“This concern has been borne out by a number of tests carried out that indicated the possibility that asbestos dust exists outside the fenced area of works.”

Testing by Work Safe NZ last night confirmed asbestos within the fenced area, however further testing was needed to confirm that the area outside the fences was asbestos-free.

That testing is due to be carried out today, and while it may ultimately show that the site was safe, board representatives stated they were not satisfied with the school remaining open until that could be proven.

It was likely the school would be closed until Monday at the earliest, school representatives said.

A meeting with parents to discuss the issue was being planned. Board members were due to meet with ministry representatives this morning to obtain health and safety information that could be circulated to parents.

Bayfield School is a decile 10 school with around 380 Year 1 to Year 6 students.


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School shut down over asbestos risk