Katy Gallagher admits flaw in ACT government’s approach to Mr Fluffy asbestos notification

This article is sourced from The Canberra Times, A

Katy Gallagher in 2005: "Would I do things differently now? Yes."
Katy Gallagher in 2005: “Would I do things differently now? Yes.” 

“ACT Chief Minister Katy Gallagher was warned personally and on multiple occasions since 2005 that Mr Fluffy home owners were at risk of coming into contact with the deadly insulation.

Documents obtained by The Canberra Times show that as industrial relations minister responsible for asbestos, Ms Gallagher received numerous recommendations to deliver “explicit”, “regular” and “systematic” warnings to more than 1000 Mr Fluffy home owners  that remnant asbestos within their wall cavities posed a potential health risk.

While all levels of government understood that when the $100 million Commonwealth Removal Program wound up in 1993, some amosite remained and renovations, or even minor work, on these homes could be dangerous, this was not adequately conveyed to the public.

Two independent internal reports – the 2005 Report on the ACT 1988-1993 Asbestos Removal Program, commissioned by the ACT Asbestos Taskforce, and the 2010 Asbestos Management Review, commissioned by the government – both recommended Ms Gallagher put in place stronger protections for buyers potentially purchasing a Mr Fluffy home, renters moving into them, and tradespeople who may work on them. Critically, she was asked to raise far greater awareness around Mr Fluffy insulation among affected home owners.

Mr Fluffy residents were issued just one formal letter under Ms Gallagher during the past nine years regarding the asbestos. It urged those considering renovations or extensions to advise their builder that their home was part of the removal program.

It wasn’t until February this year that the government wrote directly to owners after a scientific study, prepared late in 2013 on a Mr Fluffy home in Downer, provided evidence of contamination so great, it could not be ignored.

Ms Gallagher said that prior to the Downer report, there had been no advice to government suggesting home owners were at such an elevated risk of exposure. She said the government acted immediately to warn home owners once the acute risks became known.

Thirty-four Canberra families are living in emergency accommodation after the class 1 carcinogen was found in their homes.

More than 1000 families await possible demolition of their homes as a likely recommendation by the Asbestos Response Taskforce, which was established in June by the chief minister.

“Our knowledge from May this year to today has changed exponentially to what was before us for all those years,” Ms Gallagher said.

“Would I do things differently now? Yes, knowing what I’ve seen in the asbestos assessment reports, of course. But there was never any information presented to me that led to that belief that there was that level of contamination. None.”

Ms Gallagher was not the only politician who failed to adequately warn home owners.

In 1993, the Follett government sent its first letter to Mr Fluffy homes to warn them of remnant asbestos at the conclusion of the Commonwealth clean-up.

But internal correspondence shows it bowed to then Mr Fluffy owners, who “negotiated” changes to the letter so as not to affect the value of their properties.

The letter said simply: “Prior to undertaking any building alterations to internal or external walls or ceilings, please contact ‘Building Control’ to ascertain any specific requirements of the building regulations.”

This approach was criticised by Trevor Wheeler – a former general manager of the Asbestos Branch, which handled the Commonwealth clean-up – who was commissioned to document the details of the abatement program by the 2004 ACT Asbestos Taskforce.

His 28-page report clearly outlined the risk of residual amosite left behind in walls.

“It was acknowledged at the time that not all asbestos could be removed,” he said in 2005.

Mr Wheeler took the unusual step of writing a private cover letter to the taskforce to underline his concerns.

“It is sensible not to dismiss the possibility that some houses remain that have loose asbestos insulation either in bulk or residual form.

“Whether an acknowledgement of such a possibility justifies a major survey effort at public expense is a matter for judgment. There should be little debate however about the need to be prepared to raise awareness, to provide explicit information, and to learn from the experience of the 1988-93 program,” he said.

In a private written briefing on the report delivered to Ms Gallagher in April 2005, the head of the taskforce, Lincoln Hawkins, raised the prospect that Mr Fluffy owners may have had no idea their homes were affected, and that the government should act to redress this.

“A system has been in place since the program finished whereby the building files of these houses are identified as containing information about past asbestos removal, but the information has not specified that householders should take precautions when undertaking work which may penetrate wall linings,” Mr Hawkins said.

“There is no guarantee that current owners of these houses are well informed – or informed at all – about this issue.

“A strengthened system is required for providing appropriate advice to owners and potential purchasers about the management of any residual asbestos fibres.”

Ms Gallagher agreed to all of the recommendations, writing a brief note at the bottom of the document in which she noted: “The brief does not seek any further funding. Please discuss at briefing in order to implement these recommendations.”

In 2005, the government initiated a range of measures to address general asbestos dangers, including establishing a taskforce, amending the Dangerous Substances Act, and launching a multimillion-dollar public awareness campaign.

This was headed by celebrity gardener Don Burke, who suffers from an asbestos cloud on his lungs. The campaign did not target the specific dangers of remnant Mr Fluffy asbestos.

Ms Gallagher said given the benefit of hindsight, this may have been a flaw in the government’s approach.

“I think, when I reflect back – and I am not looking to absolve myself of any responsibility – but the way we dealt with asbestos was, we dealt with asbestos as a whole.

“So the issues affecting people removing or renovating with asbestos in their wet areas and bathroom were treated generically with the Mr Fluffy home owners. If that is a shortfall, knowing what we know now, then I accept that as a criticism.”

She also noted that there was considerable discussion about “singling out Mr Fluffy home owners because of the issues of protecting the value of their homes”.

The government did, however, write to all Mr Fluffy homes in 2005 stating “some residual fibres may remain in inaccessible wall cavities”.

“If you are considering extensions or renovations, you should advise your builder that your house was part of the Loose Asbestos Insulation Removal Program and instruct your builder to contact a licensed asbestos removalist to undertake the safe removal of any residual fibres during the removal of wall or ceiling lining,” it wrote.

But this too was considered an inadequate response when, in 2010, the government commissioned an independent review by Sydney consultant Jenny Dempsey.

The ACT Asbestos Management Review 2010 was prepared for Ms Gallagher to assess the ACT’s progress on its asbestos strategy. It also called on the government to strengthen its Mr Fluffy warnings and provide them on a regular basis.

Its first recommendation was “to further progress the intent of the Asbestos Taskforce recommendation, modify the form letter to [Mr Fluffy] home owners to further strengthen the message, and to further clarify legal obligations, for instance when home owners undertake alterations or renovations to property”.

Ms Dempsey recommended that “a systematic approach be taken through the ACT Planning and Land Management property system to ensure that this advice is conveyed regularly to relevant building owners”.

This would include writing to home owners “periodically to further build awareness”, and writing to new home owners to alert them to Mr Fluffy following the transfer of title.

While Ms Dempsey acknowledged general awareness around asbestos had risen during the broad 2005 campaign, it had “diluted” in subsequent years.

“A priority … should be to consider the ongoing need for further community awareness and education,” she said.”