Toxic Villawood: Government Warned Of Continuing Asbestos Risk
By Paul Farrell, Luke Bacon, Lawrence BullApril 30, 2013
Reports of dangerous asbestos contamination, revealed under Freedom of Information, show hazards have been left unaddressed at Villawood, the nation’s largest mainland detention centre.
Seven years after detainees were temporarily moved from Villawood Detention Centre to allow for the clearing of hazardous asbestos, widespread contaminations are still being reported there – putting current asylum seekers, staff, and visitors at risk of exposure to lethal disease-causing dust.
Since 2006, when the police union and refugee advocates demanded action on the known presence of asbestos at Villawood, immigration officials have consistently claimed that the risk of exposure to asbestos is “minimal”. The nation’s largest mainland detention facility, Villawood is presently holding 411 asylum seekers, including 10 children.
But the December 2012 Villawood Hazardous Materials Register shows 165 separate asbestos contaminations – and 27 of those are classified as “friable”, which means that the fibres can be easily crumbled, spread through the air and inhaled.
Inhaling asbestos fibres can cause lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma, and the potentially fatal symptoms can take years to develop.
The friable contaminations are classified as “medium” risk in the report; the company that created the register, Environmental & Safety Professionals (ESP), recommended “immediate isolation by signage, management control until removal”. ESP declined to comment on what management of asbestos hazards, if any, followed these recommendations.
An earlier register, from July 2011, lists all the same friable risks, with the same recommendation. Below are links to the registers for 2012, 2011 and 2004 — all made available in response to The Global Mail’s FoI application.
The friable asbestos has been detected in a number of heater shafts and cupboards across the compound. These have been classified as medium risk, and the condition of some of these is reported to be “poor”.
“When the condition is poor is when the time is to remove,” said Barry Robson, the president of the Asbestos Diseases Foundation of Australia. “It's not only just for the refugees and asylum seekers, but also for the staff that work there in the facility who are also exposed.”
The Global Mail, in collaboration with Detention Logs, an independent site in development investigating Australia’s immigration detention network, has obtained the registers under the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Cth).
Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) spokeswoman Lancia Jordana said the department has worked over a number of years to ensure the safety of those at Villawood. In response to written questions she said that:
“Extensive monitoring over a number of years has consistently found contaminants are well below the acceptable levels for asbestos set out under the NSW Occupational Health and Safety Act 2000,” she wrote, repeating verbatim a response given when asbestos concerns were raised in 2011.
When asked whether the “medium” friable risks reported were therefore considered safe, Jordana said, “I didn't get to see the FoI report and I've just had to rely on what some of the experts in my department have said.
“I don't have access to the information you've read and seen. That’s all I can give you at the moment,” she said of the apparent contradiction.
One instance of non-friable asbestos was also labelled “medium” risk in 2012, detected in eaves located at a basketball court provided for detainees’ use.
The 2012 register also shows that of the total number of asbestos contaminations, 136 were classified as non-friable and “low” risk; these have been found in ceilings, heater shafts, cupboards, pipes and floor tiles in detainee dorm rooms, in the administration area, visitors' areas and in the staff kitchen.
Four other instances were reported “unknown” and inaccessible.
For non-friable contaminations, the recommendation in the register is to “label & control under Management Plan. Remove before demolition”.
Detainees have been held in Villawood for months or years while their refugee claims are assessed, and a number of asylum seekers have also been detained indefinitely because they have been assessed as security risks. The risk of contracting asbestos-related illnesses increases the longer a person is exposed to the fibres.
According to the asbestos foundation’s Robson: “If these hazards have been identified and not removed, and they are in poor condition, then it’s a danger to the refugees in the detention centre and also the staff and visitors. It’s also a potential hazard to any tradesperson that comes into contact with it.”
The British company Serco manages the centre under a contract with the immigration department. Serco subcontracted ESP to create the hazard register in 2011, to keep track of hazardous materials.
Asked what actions had been taken following the ESP reports of asbestos, neither the immigration department nor Serco offered any specifics about whether the areas had been isolated, signposted and managed as recommended, nor what plans were for removal of the asbestos reported in the registers.
Immigration spokeswoman Jordana noted that “responsibility for remediation and removal of asbestos at the [Villawood Immigration Detention Facility] lies with the Commonwealth” and a number of organisations play a role in asbestos identification and removal at the facility. She said DIAC has monitored and undertaken remediation work, and that all contaminated areas have been “appropriately treated”, overseen by the Environmental Protection Authority.
She said Serco was responsible for informing staff and contractors about asbestos in the Villawood complex. She added that the company “meets its contractual obligations” for asbestos identification, ongoing monitoring and formal inspections at the current facility.
The Immigration Services Contract states, in its “waste management” provision, that Serco must “implement reasonable and cost effective measures to manage, in accordance with all applicable Law, disposal of... hazardous materials and waste”
When asked whether the asbestos reported was safe, or what action had been taken following the reports of asbestos, Paul Shaw, a spokesman for Serco, provided this statement: “The safety of our staff, those in our care, and other visitors to the site, is our first priority. We take our responsibilities to them seriously, as we do our obligations under our contracts, and federal, state, and local legislation.”
Asbestos exposure is a higher risk in environments where fibres can be easily disturbed.
Riots at the Villawood facility in April 2011 caused damage to the Hughes and Fowler compounds, potentially increasing the risk of asbestos exposure to detainees, staff and emergency services. Photos of the riot aftermath obtained under the Freedom of Information laws show that areas where asbestos is located were damaged at the time. Even the presence of non-friable asbestos can be dangerous if it’s disturbed or broken.
In November 2012 more rooftop protests occurred, and it was reported that Serco officers attempted to smash their way through the ceiling with axes.
“If, during the troubles at Villawood, there were broken sheets, smashed walls or broken eaves where the asbestos was located, then that would increase the risk,” said Robson, of the Asbestos Diseases Foundation.
Serco referred all questions about the incident to the immigration department.
Jordana said that a review was conducted of the damaged roof and “all results from these inspections and monitoring showed they were well within acceptable limits and declared safe for residents and staff”.
The December 2012 report also shows 68 findings of synthetic mineral fibres, which do not pose as serious a health risk as asbestos.
The new visitors’ building, medical centre and kitchen were found to contain synthetic mineral fibres in the roof and hot-water heaters.
Although the risk associated with these fibres is assessed as “low” and most are stable, ESP recommended removal of “loose/damaged material” in some areas.
The revelations come only a month after the federal government introduced the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency Bill 2013 in parliament, to set up a national scheme for asbestos removal.
The Federal Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Bill Shorten, said at the time: “The Gillard Government is committed to a plan of action for asbestos eradication and handling across Australia that eliminates exposure, and establishing the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency is a critical step in that process.”
The Department of Finance and Deregulation has overseen separate asbestos remediation work within the facility as part of the $186 million Villawood Redevelopment project underway. Scheduled for completion in 2015, the plans involve a “new facility” that “will better manage the wellbeing of people in detention”, according to the government.
Jordana noted that “The Department of Finance, as the client for the Villawood redevelopment, has also overseen remediation of asbestos during the Villawood redevelopment project with full consideration to the health and safety of residents, workers and visitors.”
She said asbestos remediation works related to the Villawood redevelopment project began in May 2011.
The Department of Finance and Deregulation said that: “Remediation, including asbestos, is being undertaken across these buildings and associated areas as part of the works.”
Immigration Minister Brendan O’Connor has not yet responded to requests for comment.
With Luke Bacon and Lawrence Bull.
Do you have more information about hazardous materials at Villawood or other immigration detention facilities? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org