It’s a fail: Tooma council report reveals litany of problems at Lawson

The Lawson Council depot. Photo: Wolter Peeters.
The Lawson Council depot. Photo: Wolter Peeters.

The first official report into the asbestos scandal at Blue Mountains Council has confirmed a litany of organisational failures which exposed workers to potentially deadly fibres.

The report on asbestos management at Lawson carpark, Lawson Mechanics Institute and Lawson council storage depot is the first in a series of at least a dozen reports to come from lawyer Michael Tooma on council’s management of asbestos showing the problems that arose because council failed to implement a compulsory asbestos management plan or train its workers in handling asbestos, despite it being a legal requirement since 2012.

It paints a damning picture of how asbestos was managed in 2016 during the building of a council car park next to Lawson Mechanics Institute and the transportation of contaminated soil to the Lawson council depot afterwards –and 10 critical failures by council including failing to remediate the site, authorising the transport of contaminated soil and failing to stop work and engage licensed asbestos removal and later authorising the reuse of contaminated soil.

The report by the industry expert from Clyde & Co cites the cases of young council workers –  whose concerns were also raised in a story in the Gazette last year – who were using that asbestos-containing material as a training exercise, lifting it in and out of vehicles and another worker who dug up and sifted the soil council knew to be contaminated, “screening” the material for a month with a hopper to remove the asbestos.

That worker is understood to be still with council and is one of the workers who has had a health screening.

Council received the report on February 16 but has refused to release it citing “legal grounds”.

The Gazette understands it is a report that is likely to provide more ammunition to a state government set to suspend the council. And it is a report itself that was already controversial due to an alleged conflict of interest between Mr Tooma and a council contractor, which has now led to court action between council and the state government in the Land and Environment Court.  Local Government Minister Gabrielle Upton, who is in the process of trying to suspend council for the second time in as many months, is not speaking to the media about the matter, because it is before the courts.

The Tooma report highlighted the lack of training and awareness of relevant legal obligation in relation to asbestos. 

The report heard council tried to save between $40,000 and $50,000 on waste disposal fees from the soil removal but have now spent $600,000 remediating the Lawson stockpile site. Council was required to remove a total of 1,950 tonnes of material in order to remediate the site, which was treated as potential asbestos-containing material. 

The report has also revealed an unprotected and untrained worker was instructed by a construction supervisor to wash the “backo” out at the back of the depot near a childcare facility. The report indicated a council supervisor said the fill was safe to use.

The report cites ten critical failures by the council including:

  • failure to remediate the soil
  • failure to place land on contaminated land register or council’s property information system
  • failure to prepare adequate project brief
  • failure to respond adequately to discovery of contamination report
  • failure to make adequate inquiries regarding project
  • failure to stop work and engage licensed asbestos removal contractor upon first asbestos find
  • authorising the transport and transporting contaminated soil to a stockpile site
  • instructing “screening” of contaminated soil by workers
  • failure to label contaminated soil at the stockpile site and isolate the deport where the contaminated soil was stockpiled
  • authoring reuse of contaminated soil.

In the public domain is a 2012 report from the Roads and Maritime Authority, when handing over the long-term lease to council for the car park, of the presence of contaminated material and the need for council to have an asbestos management plan for the site, and that a state government warning that the site contained asbestos was not included in the development application for the site.

Greens Councillor Kerry Brown, who has been advocating on the issue for some time, said the circumstances of the Lawson Depot stockpile will "overshadow the lives of workers put at risk and of their supervisors. I am sad for all of them and their families. 

“Mr Tooma identifies major organisational failures. The bottom line is the lack of procedures, accountability and training that could have prevented these events.

“This is where senior management and councillors as the governing body come into the picture. It was our responsibility to ensure there was an Asbestos Management Plan that left no one in any doubt about where asbestos was in our properties and how to manage it safely.

“The sword of Damocles hanging over everyone’s head is where the blame will land or whether council will negotiate an enforceable undertaking with Safework NSW for reform of council safety procedures and structures that will be seen as a suitable resolution.”

The Dust Disease Board has started a health screening of 200 past and present outdoor workers through council’s recently introduced asbestos management plan –  126 employees have participated. Cr Brown said “63 were considered at medium to high risk of developing an asbestos-related disease”.

The Tooma report has cited incidents of failures under the Work Health and Safety Regulation where it is illegal to direct or allow a worker to carry out work involving asbestos unless they are a licensed asbestos removalist and also under the Protection of the Environmental Operations (Waste) Regulation where it is illegal to re-use or recycle asbestos waste including contaminated piles.

By the end of the financial year council will have spent $4.058m on asbestos management in 2017-2018.

The Gazette wrote the first story about asbestos problems at Blue Mountains Council in July last year.

The Gazette’s sister Fairfax paper The Sun-Herald wrote a front page story on the Tooma report last weekend and the mayor responded with a lengthy statement.

“As I soon I received the report I arranged an urgent briefing of councillors, sent a copy to the NSW Government and put the report before the elected council for acceptance and action.

“We are implementing all of the recommendations”, Cr Mark Greenhill said.

“Mr Tooma’s work is crucial. In the interest of all of our workers, we are currently seeking legal advice on the findings within the report relating to the handling of asbestos.”

The mayor said the recommendations do not adversely mention the elected councillors.

“The investigation was to leave no stone unturned to find out what has happened in the past so we can make sure any failings do not happen again,” the mayor said.

Cr Brown said of the mayor’s statement: “I’m really glad that council has now made worker and public safety its top priority.”