Government agencies failed to respond adequately to asbestos risk

By DANIEL DE CARTERET

A lack of coordination between the Environment Protection Authority, WorkSafe Victoria and local government has raised questions about the handling of public health incidents arising from potential exposure to asbestos fibres.

An EPA report produced after an inspection of a landfill in Bulla found that asbestos had not been covered sufficiently to prevent the release of fibres to the air

While the EPA put an action plan in place to ensure environmental impacts were resolved, an investigation by Monash University investigative journalism students found that neither WorkSafe nor Hume City Council were brought in to assess the human health risks.

Bulla landfill failed to cover asbestos waste

The Department of Human Services’s guidelines put the responsibilities on the EPA for dealing with environmental impacts, WorkSafe for assessing workers’ health and safety risks, and where the public may be at risk, local government is required to make an assessment.

The guidelines “strongly recommend’’ that the three agencies work together to ensure that “nothing is missed’’.

Health Department media spokesman Graeme Walker said councils had a duty under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act to remedy as far as is reasonably possible all “nuisances’’ within their municipal boundaries. “Any person, whether a council or not, who manages or controls a landfill is required to comply with the above requirements.’’

However, the Bulla incident highlights both a lack of co-operation and a lack of understanding of roles and responsibilities.

What is surprising is that the EPA’s response followed severe criticism of the organisation by the state’s Ombudsman for failing to recognise the risk to residents of methane gas escaping from a landfill near the Brookland Greens housing estate in Cranbourne. The Ombudsman identified a lack of cooperation between agencies: “it is inexcusable that at a time when the EPA and the City of Casey should have been working together for the greater good of the community and the co-ordination of the emergency response, they were unable to put aside their differences.  In my view, residents of the estate were placed at unnecessary risk by both the City of Casey and the EPA in failing to ensure that appropriate actions were taken in a timely manner to mitigate the risk of landfill gas escaping from the landfill into the estate.’’

Occupational health and safety director for the Victorian branch of the Australian Workers Union, Percy Pillai, said the discovery of asbestos at the Bulla landfill was not an isolated incident and that the EPA had a history of ignoring immediate health risks.

“Morally they have an obligation if workers are being exposed they should bring it to the attention of the other government agencies involved, but they don’t do that,’’ Mr Pillai said.

The EPA said the health risk assessment was a matter for WorkSafe or the Health Department. WorkSafe confirmed it had not been made aware of the Bulla incident. Hume City Council responded that as the Bulla tip was privately owned, the issue was outside its jurisdiction.

Asbestoswise CEO Wayne Bruton said that his community support group received many phone calls relating to similar issues where government agencies had deflected responsibility.

“It’s appalling, you shouldn’t have an open asbestos area in a built up area like Bulla because it’s a danger for the public,’’ Mr Bruton said. He said no-one wanted to take responsibility when problems arose.

In October, 2011, the EPA fined Swan Hill Rural City council almost $6000 for leaving asbestos and household waste uncovered for two days in a landfill. While EPA North West Regional Manager Tim Eaton acknowledged the “obvious environmental and health implications’’, it appears no-one contacted WorkSafe to assess the risk.

“This sort of behaviour can leave the landfill staff exposed to health risks from the uncovered asbestos, not to mention the effect of pungent odours from the tip on the local community,’’ Mr Eaton said.

Swan Hill Rural City Council would not confirm whether any public health risk assessment had been carried out at the site.

At both the Bulla and the Swan Hill incidents each of the agencies involved in assessing the health risks pointed to each other for responsibility.

Swan Hill Rural City Council declined to comment on its role in the incident.

Mr Bruton said: “If you’re in a residential area that is close to an asbestos dumping facility, and the council haven’t been informed or if they have and they haven’t acted upon it to enforce what restrictions they can then they are just as culpable.’’

The Health Department says that landfill sites would normally fall under the jurisdiction of the EPA for environmental requirements and WorkSafe for OH&S requirements.

Note: The Regional Landfill in Clayton also breached a condition relating to asbestos. Its Annual Performance Statements says a small amount of asbestos was taken from the transfer station to the landfill face. It assessed the environmental impact as ‘low’.

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