Asbestos is costing home owners hundreds of thousands of dollars to clean up after shattering in February’s Wheatbelt bushfires.
- Property owners hit with compulsory asbestos clean-up bills after bushfires
- People with asbestos in homes warned of shattering effect that happens in fires
- Toxicologist says asbestos becomes “10 times more expensive to remove” if it shatters
It has prompted warnings of an inevitable catastrophe if more asbestos-filled towns are burned.
Shannon and Tim Hardingham were quoted $250,000 to remove the asbestos from buildings destroyed in a bushfire which hit their farm.
Nearby farmer Colin Pond was quoted $130,000 to remove asbestos from the remains of just one farmhouse.
He estimated 15 farms were razed by the fire which narrowly missed the town of Corrigin — only one of the emergency-level fires which struck south-west WA on a weekend of extreme winds and 43 degree temperatures.
“The fire was heading straight for Corrigin and then the wind moved about 90 degrees,” he said.
Had the winds not shifted, the incredibly hot and dry conditions would have made defending the town extremely difficult.
Mr Pond said about 80 per cent of buildings in Corrigin contained asbestos, as did many buildings in towns and farms across the region.
“I don’t know what can be done to avoid it.”
Asbestos ‘shatters’ in fire
WA Department of Health senior toxicologist Peirina Otness said there had already been instances of entire towns having to be evacuated after asbestos burned and spread into the local environment.
“Moisture gets trapped in asbestos sheets and in a fire it heats up very, very quickly and shatters,” she said.
“You end up with very small flakes distributed around where a structure has been and those flakes tend to be friable, which means they are more crumbly and can more readily cause airborne fibres if they are disturbed.”
Fire-damaged asbestos can spread into the smoke during a fire, but Ms Otness said the risks were greatest when people returned to the site afterwards.
“If there’s minimal damage, people may be able to go back in to retrieve items but you will have to work with the emergency response people,” she said.
Asbestos ‘extremely common’ in regions
Ms Hardingham said asbestos was extremely common across her region.
Asbestos was a popular construction material for much of the mid-20th century.
Its use was phased out once it became publicly known as a carcinogen and banned entirely in 2003.
Ms Hardingham said she had been told the $250,000 quote for asbestos removal might be reduced by up to a quarter.
However, even if it was, she said they would need a loan to pay the bill after having already lost “in excess of $1.5 million” across the farm, only a third of which was recovered through insurance.
Corrigin Shire chief executive Natalie Manton said the council had sought disaster recovery funding from the WA state government but local farmers did not meet the criteria.
“We have concluded that the funding will only cover the clean up of residential buildings in extremely rare circumstances that result in someone being homeless or present a very high risk to public safety,” she said.
She said the council was legally compelled to prosecute owners from a handful of properties who had not yet paid.
“Of the affected land owners, all have made progress on the asbestos removal and some are almost at the point of full remediation,” she said.
“There are unrestricted licenced contractors working in the Corrigin and Bruce Rock Shires now and they will be working until the end of June on the majority of properties affected by friable asbestos.”
Remove it before it is too late
WA environmental regulations stipulate that damaged asbestos must be cleaned up by a licensed removalist, generally at the landowner’s expense.
Other states have similar legislation in place requiring that damaged asbestos be removed.
Asbestos removal is generally not legally required so long as it is intact and structurally sound.
However, undamaged sheet asbestos can be wrapped and safely removed far more easily than damaged asbestos that has contaminated the local environment.
“At WA Health we’re really trying to raise awareness to prioritise the removal of asbestos [before it is damaged],” Ms Otness said.
However for towns like Corrigin, removing all the asbestos is a daunting prospect, unlikely to happen without funding or government intervention.
“To reclad 80 per cent of a township — especially in the middle of a building material shortage … I don’t know what would happen,” Mr Pond said.
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