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New South Wales: Police Union wants Villawood detention centre closed immediately until asbestos is removed; Dept of Immigration has expert advice that contamination is low risk.

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Wednesday 5 April 2006

New South Wales: Police Union wants immediate closure of Villawood detention centre until asbestos is removed; Dept of Immigration has expert advice that contamination is low risk


MARK COLVIN: The New South Wales police union has called for the Federal Government to shut down Villawood Detention Centre in Sydney's west and move the detainees out, because of fears over asbestos contamination. 


The Immi
gration Department has confirmed that asbestos fibres have been found in the topsoil in a fenced off section of the facility. 


But the department insists it poses a low risk. 


Experts were called in late this afternoon to conduct further tests, after the police union directed its members not to work at Villawood. 


And the police force itself has now demanded urgent independent testing of the site. 


Jean Kennedy reports. 


JEAN KENNEDY: While it might seem like an unlikely advocate to call for the Villawood Detention Centre to be closed down, the New South Wales police union is today calling for just that. 


The union's president Bob Pritchard is concerned for the safety of his officers and the detainees and staff at the centre, after asbestos was found in the topsoil of a fenced off area of the site. 


The Immigration Department says it's considered to pose a low risk. 


But Bob Pritchard isn't buying it. 


BOB PRITCHARD: Our executive met today and have passed resolutions calling for a ban on the site, which means that no police officers should have to go onto that site. We've also sought a direction from the Commissioner that no police officer enter the site, and that the Villawood Detention Centre immediately closes until such time as it is made safe. 


JEAN KENNEDY: So you're calling for Villawood to be completely shut down until this problem's fixed? You want the detainees and the staff moved out, do you? 


BOB PRITCHARD: Yes we do. As I said, it's an identified risk. Asbestos is a terrible product and causes terrible diseases. It can be fixed in that location by removing the problem. Whilst that is being done, the people should be removed and should not return until such time as it's made safe and covered by WorkCover. 


JEAN KENNEDY: But if the Immigration Department says it's a low risk, obviously they don't want the liability to land in their lap if there is a problem there. Are you overstating the danger here? 


BOB PRITCHARD: As I said, there's no such thing as low risk with asbestos, they are liable whether they class it as a low risk or a high risk. It is still there, people are still able to contract these diseases. It just should not happen. We should remove all people from that site and let it be made safe. 


JEAN KENNEDY: A big protest is planned by refugee advocacy groups over Easter, involving hundreds of police officers. But the union says unless the site's made safe they won't be turning up. 


An Immigration Department spokesman, Sandy Logan, says the asbestos fibres were found in an area which was remediated after the discovery of asbestos there in 2001. 


SANDY LOGAN: The expert advice that we have to hand, and we've involved now Commcare and Health Services Australia to offer us further advice in terms of care for detainees or staff who have any concerns, indicate that in fact the detection of asbestos on this one occasion is a low risk. We take that advice fairly seriously. 


JEAN KENNEDY: The police union says that the centre should be shut down because it's an unacceptable risk. They say there's no such thing as a low risk. 


SANDY LOGAN: The Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs takes and treats quite seriously its responsibility in terms of the well-being of detainees, of the staff who work there, and of course the visitors. That's a very high priority for us. We're consulting with appropriate authorities. We've got further testing underway, as we speak, and we'll be conducting that for a number of days now and looking at the results. 


JEAN KENNEDY: Late this afternoon the New South Wales police force called for independent tests to be conducted at the Villawood Detention Centre, and want an urgent meeting with the Department to discuss the issue. 


The Acting Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione says police will be forced to change plans for the Easter demonstration, which includes hundreds of officers on foot and horseback, and police dogs. 


Labor's Federal Immigration spokesman Tony Burke claims the Department has known about the risk at the site for years and failed to act. 


TONY BURKE: Too many people have had their lives wrecked by asbestos. I'm concerned about the detainees, I'm concerned about the people who work there, I'm concerned about the visitors. But the question can't just be what's the risk level, the question has to be is it safe. And the Department needs to act in a way and Amanda Vanstone needs to intervene, to make sure that for all the people concerned, safety's guaranteed. 


JEAN KENNEDY: But Immigration Department spokesman Sandy Logan was also unable to guarantee that staff and detainees hadn't been exposed to asbestos at the centre, either with this latest discovery or in previous years. 


SANDY LOGAN: To the best of my knowledge, the site where the demolition work took place a number of years ago by the Commonwealth, from which the asbestos material was isolated and then removed, in no way presented a danger to staff, to detainees, or to the public at the time. 


JEAN KENNEDY: But that's not really what I'm asking. What I'm asking is before 2001, were detainees, were staff, were members of the public exposed to asbestos at the Villawood Detention site? 


SANDY LOGAN: We have no evidence on which to base a judgement to that, in relation to that question. 


MARK COLVIN: Immigration Department spokesman Sandy Logan ending Jean Kennedy's report.