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Asbestos inaction -

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A NSW Ombudsman's report has slammed the government's inaction over an abandoned asbestos mine.

Transcript

TRACY BOWDEN, PRESENTER: On the domestic front, a scathing criticism of Government inaction over
asbestos has been issued today by the NSW Ombudsman.

It follows a flurry of reports in Queensland about possible asbestos hazards in that state's
schools.

The Ombudsman is particularly critical of the mountain of asbestos tailings left behind at the
abandoned Woodsreef Mine in northern NSW, which he describes as "an environmental disaster" and a
"serious public health issue".

Two years ago we reported on the condition of the former asbestos mine, but since then, as Matt
Peacock reports, little has changed.

MATT PEACOCK, REPORTER: In the NSW Northern Tablelands near Tamworth lies this huge mountain of
asbestos tailings. 400 hectares, up to 70 metres high and 15 per cent pure white asbestos. The grim
legacy of the abandoned Woodsreef Mine.

BARRY ROBSON, ASBESTOS DISEASES SOCIETY (August 2008): I was absolutely amazed. I was amazed that
in 2010 we can still have something like that in the community close to where people live. The
scale is just extraordinary.

MATT PEACOCK: Most of the asbestos mined here supplied James Hardie, the company that employed
Bernie Banton who died in 2007 of mesothelioma.

BERNIE BANTON: This is about the victims and support for them and their families. Thankyou so much.

MATT PEACOCK: With the Asbestos Diseases Foundation, Bernie Banton led a long campaign to force the
company to compensate its victims.

Two years ago, the 7.30 Report came here with the society's president Barry Robson, who was shocked
by the conditions.

BARRY ROBSON (August 2008): I found it totally amazing that road access has been bulldozed through
asbestos tailings and it's used by the public, and it's actually, the local council and the tourist
people here in the local district encourage people to come up here and drive through these
tailings. I find it amazing.

NICO VAN ZANDWIJK, ASBESTOS DISEASES RESEARCH INSTITUTE: There is no doubt at all that it is very,
very dangerous. Obviously it's a little bit less dangerous than the other types, the blue and the
brown asbestos, but still we have to be very much aware of all the potential dangers that may be
elicited by white asbestos.

MATT PEACOCK: At the time, the then NSW Mines Minister Ian MacDonald refused an interview, but
following pressure from locals, asbestos groups and unions, the NSW Government agreed to act.

PAUL BASTIAN, PRESIDENT, AMWU: We wanted the site secure because people and children were playing
in the area, tourists were using it, school buses went through and past it and it was just
unacceptable.

MATT PEACOCK: The road at least was to be sealed and last year $5 million was to be spent
demolishing the mill and clearing away loose asbestos. But what has happened?

PAULA MCIVER, BARRABA COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT COMMITTEE: Pretty much zilch. That's what happened.

PAUL BASTIAN: We went to the NSW Government back in '08 and demanded some action and we still
haven't seen anything happen since then.

MATT PEACOCK: Today's Ombudsman's report calls the mine site an "environmental disaster" with
"extraordinary asbestos contamination" and "minimal security". Very little has been done by
government, it concludes, to deal with this "serious public health issue".

PAULA MCIVER: The response has been appalling. That's the only word to use, because there's been no
adequate response.

MATT PEACOCK: Paula McIver is secretary of the Community Development Committee in Barraba, 15
kilometres from the mine.

PAULA MCIVER: This area here turns over $125 million in livestock sales, every year in beef cattle.
It's one of the richest agricultural areas in Australia. And yet we have an asbestos mine and the
Government has abandoned it and abandoned the community.

MATT PEACOCK: The sheer scale of the mountain of potentially cancer-causing asbestos tailings left
behind by this mine is simply mind-boggling. Both the state and federal governments subsidised
Woodsreef Mine, yet for the past 30 years there's been nothing but buck-passing about who if anyone
will clean it up.

BRUCE BARBOUR, NSW OMBUDSMAN: The state that the building's in, it's scary, it's very scary, and I
certainly wouldn't wanna be going through there on a windy day. I think there's a real danger.

MATT PEACOCK: These photos from the Ombudsman's office reveal the degree of asbestos contamination
inside the abandoned mill building he's recommended be demolished. Two years ago, the Mines
Department's Elise Newberry refused to say if it was safe.

You're saying the place is safe now?

ELISE NEWBERRY, NSW DEPARTMENT OF MINES (August 2008): I'm saying the place is as stable as we can
make it at this point in time.

MATT PEACOCK: Safe? Safe?

ELISE NEWBERRY: You'll have to ask health experts about safe.

BRUCE BARBOUR: Short-term remediation, removing the old mill site, trying to make the site stable,
better securing it, would not be that expensive. It'd be in the order of about $5 million. That at
the very least should be a matter of priority.

MATT PEACOCK: This is how asbestos is dealt with according to the law on building sites. Full
protective suits and breathing apparatus preventing any inhalation of the toxic dust. But it's a
different story elsewhere amongst home renovators and local councils, according to the Ombudsman.
Community awareness about asbestos dangers is "minimal" and the Government's approach overall is
"disjointed, ad hoc and confusing".

BRUCE BARBOUR: We want one single co-ordination authority, we want adequate and appropriate public
awareness campaigns, we want there to be a single law which covers all asbestos-related issues.

NICO VAN ZANDWIJK: There is a popular saying in Australia, "Don't worry", but in the case of
asbestos, the Australians should worry very much.

MATT PEACOCK: Australia has the highest per capita incidence of asbestos disease in the world,
according to Professor Nico Van Zandwijk at Sydney's Bernie Banton Centre - all deaths that are
preventable.

NICO VAN ZANDWIJK: It is a tragedy what we are seeing in the Australian environment currently.
There are too many persons dying from asbestos-related diseases.

BRUCE BARBOUR: We've got campaigns to ensure people don't go out in the sun, expose themselves to
the sun for fear that they might get melanoma or skin cancer. This is no different. We must inform
the community about where asbestos is located, what it looks like, what the dangers are. There's no
safe level of exposure, and if people are exposed, there's the risk, the very real risk that they
will die.

MATT PEACOCK: Not only does each state need a central asbestos authority, believes union leader
Paul Bastian, the Federal Government must also take action.

PAUL BASTIAN: It was widely used everywhere. It needs a national response. Laws aren't unified
around the country, local government's got its laws involved in it, state governments have. We need
a national authority to oversee it as well to try and get this dealt with once and for all.

MATT PEACOCK: And meanwhile, the local community at Barraba tries to ignore their menacing
neighbour and continues to wait for the promised government action.

PAULA MCIVER: It's just an eye sore. It just keeps raising its ugly head all the time. And if it
was in the city, it wouldn't be left like that.

TRACY BOWDEN: And NSW Premier Kristina Keneally today referred the Ombudsman's report to Cabinet
saying it would get serious consideration. The Opposition described the Government's inaction as
scandalous. That report from Matt Peacock.