Asbestos hampers fire recovery

As bulldozers and trucks continue to clear debris in the aftermath of historic bushfires, the recovery effort is being hampered by another challenge requiring even more delicate handling: the risk of asbestos contamination.

Assessments of damaged properties have found that about 40 per cent of homes and buildings destroyed during the summer infernos were riddled with the hazardous substance, according to analysis by the NSW Rural Fire Service.

But while these properties have already been drenched with a PVC binder spray to freeze the fibres in place, it is the disposal of these old corrugated sheets and boards that poses an ongoing risk to communities during the clean-up.

It was commonplace before 1987 for asbestos to be used as a building material in the walls, ceilings and roofs of homes. It was banned from sale, manufacture, importation and almost every other type of usage in 2003.

“Contaminated properties will be prioritised,” said NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro, who is overseeing the recovery response.

“Hazardous materials will be transported away from communities by appropriately licensed contractors to appropriately licensed facilities.” He said vigilance in the recovery process would be paramount.

How much asbestos was made airborne by the fires is difficult to measure. Much like the 2001 terror attacks in New York, during which plumes of asbestos were released in the immediate aftermath, it is inevitable that communities were put at risk. This is why the Rural Fire Service has conducted 40,000 assessments of properties, a government official said, and sprayed those affected to contain the risk.

A dedicated recovery team has been given a June deadline to complete the clean-up of debris and other works. In addition to the removal of the asbestos, the team must deal with the removal of dead animals, the restoration of agriculture, the recovery of damaged wildlife, and a capital works program to rebuild millions of dollars in damaged infrastructure.

The mental health of community members is another aspect falling within its remit.

“The recovery is absolutely immense,” said a senior official co-ordinating the response.

“There are all these elements we’re working through: it’s a massive capital works program, plus the clean-up.” This would all be much easier, the official said, without the added challenge posed by asbestos contamination, and the cumbersome but necessary procedures required to remove it safely.

About 2400 homes were destroyed by the fires, along with another 945 identified as damaged. A further 11,000 buildings, among them schools and hospitals, were similarly affected, according to NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, who delivered an update to parliament this week on the scope of the damage.

Undisturbed, asbestos poses little risk. But when it is disturbed or burned in a fire, its hazardous particles can be let loose and settle in ash or dust. It is for this reason that residents were urged to stay away from their properties until assessments and sprayworks had been completed by the RFS.

‘Contaminated properties will be prioritised’ JOHN BARILARO NSW DEPUTY PREMIER.

Article originally published in the Weekend Australian.

Posted in News

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