Alethe Diegemata (A True History)



nel tempo de li dèi falsi e bugiardi - Dante

Well what an interesting few weeks I have had. First a bit of context. My family, including three children aged 5,9 & 13, moved into a property just outside Sorell last November. This is a fairly large rural property and a part of this site has a permit allowing the dumping of clean fill.

When we signed the lease we understood that trucks would be dumping at the site. The agents told us there would not be very many occasions for this dumping, and that anything dumped would be clean fill. While this was annoying, we thought, if it is clean fill all should be well.

I will not use any names, or say very much to identify anyone involved in this sorry saga. There seems no need to name names. I will however mention that this has occurred under the jurisdiction of the Sorell Council, as this is important for any conclusions.

On a Monday afternoon we came home from a fun day of enjoying early spring Tasmanian sunshine. A fire was burning at the dump site. To make matters worse this fire was unattended. Who had started the fire?

The people dumping, some local hoons out for fun? Or were chemicals dumped which spontaneously started to burn? We had to call the fire department.

After calling the fire department I had a closer look at the fire. It seems that it was the rubble of a recently demolished building. When the firefighters arrived one of them was able to identify the building, and mentioned that there was asbestos in this building.

So started a swirling time of being ignored, or fobbed off, and being offered bland words of comfort and confusion. Attempts to talk to our real estate agent have been unanswered and ignored. Letters to the council members resulted in a phone call from a member. To be fair, this local councillor seems to be supportive, while not offering anything concrete.

Contact with the EPA only affirmed my opinion of that body. I was amused and perplexed when a person at EPA informed me that he could offer no definition for clean fill. It struck me as more that odd that this should be true. The EPA was set up in the early nineties, and they can not define clean fill! I was able to wiggle out a definition, which was more ‘a take’ than a definition. Clean fill is meant to be waste that can be used as the foundations of a building. That is bricks, concrete, clean soil etc. Nothing that, once covered over, could move and settle. For if there was underground motion any building constructed on the site would be weakened. This would of course preclude bits of wood and timber, empty paint tins, old tires, refrigerators and the like. It goes without saying that, as the very name clean fill suggests, this type of fill would not include asbestos.

I will note that at no time has anyone from the local council called the house and let us know what is happening, and what will happen. Even though the property was overrun with council cars and workers, not one of them took it upon themselves to walk to the door and attempt to address our concerns, or even to alleviate our worries. I can not assert that no member of council has been to inspect this dump site, but if any have come to the property and had a look they did not extend their courtesy and investigations to talking to us.

I note that no one from the EPA felt prudent to call us up, knowing that a house is on the site. Indeed in my contact with EPA the person on the other end seemed annoyed that more than one person had informed EPA about this breach. Any contact made with officialdom was initiated by us, not the other way around.

One could imagine that after the fiasco of consultation over the Copping C-Cell the council would be on best behaviour ensuring that all was well. One would think that council would want to contact the households in the immediate vicinity of this asbestos dumping and burning event. Sadly the council seems to have learned very few lessons as to the importance of communication or the need to be proactive.

On the ABC website I noted an article about what had happened. I was more confused than enlightened by the comments of the manager of the town council. “We certainly did the checks on the structure itself.”

Others have told me that checks done a few years ago mentioned asbestos in the ceiling. The EPA told me that there was no asbestos in building, but in the foundations under the building. I find this to be a most unusual state of affairs. When this building was erected people were more casual about the use of asbestos, even though the Roman author Pliny in the first century of our common era advised people not to buy slaves who had worked in asbestos quarries, as they die young. The councillor that I spoke to told me that there was no report written about the now demolished building. In a time like this one hears many stories and one has to judge as to the truth or not. One story I did hear was that this building was identified as containing asbestos, and the council was informed two years ago. I do not know the truth of this, but it comes from a local who seems to have no reason to make things up.

However it seems the simple thing to find out, was a building report done or not? Was the report done by accredited experts? The manager of the town continues with this sentence. ‘So what, I guess, we weren’t aware of what was lying below the ground.’ More flippant than assuring. I hope the council has learned a very valuable lesson about due diligence. And again this raises the question of the building report. If the foundations were to be disturbed as well, why was asbestos not found? What of the health and safety of the workers on the site, who was looking after the heath and safety to the locals who may have been exposed to asbestos? As the building was built in 1973, during a golden era of asbestos usage, would it not have been wise to assume all proper precautions were taken, rather than assume all would be well? It is not as if this is a issue that has arisen in only the last few days. The problem of asbestos contamination and the safe disposal of asbestos has been talked about for years. Indeed this very issue forced James Hardy to move their headquarters overseas to avoid paying for clean-up and compensation. An issue known about for years, and one that any proactive managers should have investigated fully. I come from an IT background, and one thing I learned is to be prepared for worst, for the unexpected, even small projects need backups and alternate plans. Even small projects need both belts and braces. Even small projects are able to get out of control if not closely monitored. Tedious, yes; more expensive yes, but in the long term such attention to detail and adherence to procedure saves time and expense in the long run. Attention to detail and proper planning are the hallmarks of good management. What does this inattention and sloppy planning of the Sorell Council say?

My own ‘feeling’ is that asbestos was in the ceiling, and that the asbestos found on the ground was the result of the demolition process. But then again I am not an engineer and I admit I do not have all the facts.

Some may blame the sub-contractor who actually dug the hole and started the fire;  this is nothing more than hiding the responsibility of the council. The buck must stop somewhere, and the stopping place must be with the people who authorised the contractor to do this work. Council members are well paid, and gain a certain amount of respect for their position. And it is exactly for this taking of responsibility that they are paid so well. It is wrong for the council to try to move the fault onto the contractor they hired. What have they done to ensure that proper procedure and best practise is adhered to?  They obviously do not carry out even spot checks on the work done in their name. I can vouch for this, as I have never seen a council worker on the site, until this week, when the place has been lousy with council workers. Noting of course that no one at any time walked the one hundred metres to our house to, even out of courtesy, inform of what was happening, and what will happen to fix the problem. Indeed if there was not the attempt to burn the rubble the contractor would have buried the rubble, including asbestos, as well as lead paint and no one would have been the wiser.

Use this simple thought experiment, as the township grows and the land is developed and houses are built on the dump site, and it is discovered that this dump was not clean fill, and contained toxic chemicals who would be held responsible? The contractor who may not even be in business any longer? Or the council who issued the permit and did not adhere to the proper process?

And then another simple thought experiment, if Council is unable to demolish a small building, and if council is unable to properly dispose of the rubble created (including apparently asbestos), how are we expected to believe that they will be able to put in place the proper procedures and oversight of the proposed Copping C-Cell? A project which would greatly increase the waste in the community, as well as increase traffic, a project that will be taking hazardous material for not only all of the state of Tasmania, but also waste for the various stations in the Antarctic.

Every evening on television I can see a commercial warning people to be careful of home renovations as asbestos may be in the building. Everyone of the reality based home building shows warns of asbestos. Everyone has heard of the dangers of asbestos. However it seems the Sorell Council is too busy and too important to watch telly, or maybe they think rules are for other people. As there is a well defined and understood set of protocols surrounding the safe removal of asbestos, it seems again that Sorell Council feels that the these regulations do not apply to them. Of course I can not know for sure, as my requests for the building report have been ignored, as has my request to look at the report the council wrote over this issue.

If the Council can not deal with clean-fill how will they be able to deal with hundreds of thousands of cubic metres hazardous material? A job like this is more technical than running a shop or buying real estate, and requires strong and rigorous oversight. If they can not handle the demolition of a small hut, how can they deal with potential toxic spill?

This episode has shown me that without a profound cultural change in the way Council performs and responds this C-Cell will be a disaster waiting to happen.

And on a more personal note if there are any who can offer legal advice, please do not hesitate to contact me via this journal.

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