30 May 2014

Co-ordination on asbestos risk slow

4:58 pm on 30 May 2014

Documents obtained by Radio New Zealand show the Department of Labour had not developed a co-ordinated position on asbestos hazards in the Christchurch rebuild, almost two years after the 2011 quake. From WorkSafe New Zealand and the Earthquake Commission, the information was provided under the Official Information Act.

This week the Government, the Earthquake Commission and Fletcher Construction gave assurances the hazardous material has been handled responsibly and effectively.

danger asbestos removal sign


However, an email from December 2012 from a Department of Labour manager shows it was then still trying to work out the best way to deal with asbestos hazards in the Christchurch rebuild.

The email has "Asbestos and Canterbury" in the subject line and was sent by Francois Barton from what was then called the Department of Labour.

In it he said "a clear and more coordinated position and response on asbestos in Canterbury from us is non-negotiable, we need to get a plan for how we'll develop that position, before we debate what that position might be".

Mr Barton went on to say "The subsequent issue of future exposure risk from encased asbestos...remains live, but clearly sits in the wider context of the multiple asbestos products in many NZ homes and touches on the DIY homeowner aspect."

"My sense is that there are small steps underway regarding improvement across most of these aspects, but we collectively have significant scope for improvement... we're still very much forming a view on how to effect a more coordinated response," he wrote.

MOH's concerns

Canterbury's medical officer of health, Dr Alistair Humphrey, said talks about the hazard of asbestos fibres during post-quake repairs to Canterbury homes began in 2012, and he personally raised them.

Dr Humphrey believed there were inconsistencies in guidelines over its handling and a slow response to its dangers.

He told Morning Report that up till that point he felt ignored, but shortly after WorkSafe started educating the workforce.

Dr Humphrey said his main concern was that asbestos damaged ceilings were being covered with plaster board and that would disguise a potential hazard, which was what he raised at that stage.

Homeowner concern

A number of residents in Canterbury have told Radio New Zealand that they believe they have been exposed to asbestos fibres during quake repairs.

They have rejected the assurances from the Earthquake Commission and Fletcher EQR, which is overseeing the Christchurch rebuild, that people have not been put in danger.

The homeowners say that while processes for testing houses may be robust now, that wasn't the case in the first two years of the rebuild.

On Thursday an advocacy group set up its own register to record asbestos information because no overall, single register exists in Canterbury.

A spokesperson for the group Earthquake Services, Sarah O'Brien, said the register has been formed so data could be collected and numbers taken to the Canterbury District Health Board.

She said the service needed people to come forward to gather written evidence in a number form to be presented to the Government.

Ms O'Brien said so far, the plight of the people and the health risk has been ignored. She said the group has tried for months to contact Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel to set up a register through an 0800 number, but has not been successful.

Key reserves judgement at this stage

The Prime Minister is reserving judgement on whether Fletcher EQR has followed the rules on how to handle asbestos.

John Key said WorkSafe was not yet in a position to decide whether charges should be laid. He said it was a matter for WorkSafe to decide whether Fletchers discharged their responsibilities and if they didn't want action they wanted to take.

Mr Key said there was no need for Cantabrians to be unnecessarily alarmed as a result of the investigation into Fletcher EQR.