The Price: Resolving Mr Fluffy

 

One billion dollars… that is the price. The price upfront of resolving in the ACT at least, the scourge of loose-fill asbestos insulation that has persisted for five decades.

The ACT Government has today announced an agreement with the Commonwealth, that will give the territory access to financing of up to $1billion. The concessional loan will permit the ACT to conduct a buyback of the more than 1000 homes in the territory that had loose-fill asbestos insulation installed, and which to varying degrees still have traces of the carcinogenic and potentially lethal material present. The fate of those homes is simple – demolition. What possessions can be salvaged will be, the homes will be removed and the soil on the blocks remediated to remove any final traces of the fibres that since the material was installed in the 1960s and 70s, has trickled down from the roof and wall cavities above.

Once demolished, the land will be offered for sale, with first preference given to the original home owner.

“We understand that many homeowners have indicated a preference to return to their block in the future. We have worked to balance this desire with mitigating the cost of this program to the rest of the community.”

– Chief Minister Katy Gallagher

When all the land is eventually resold and one money recouped, the expected final cost of the program is expected to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars; a near insurmountable cost for a jurisdiction the size of the ACT without assistance. While the Commonwealth’s loan helps buffer the cost to the ACT and gives it access to favourable borrowing terms, it falls short of the territory government’s desire for an actual contribution from the Commonwealth.

“Whilst the ACT Government did not get the assistance we had asked for, I thank Senator Eric Abetz and Commonwealth officials for their professional and compassionate approach to this issue.”

– Chief Minister Katy Gallagher

The report of the ACT Asbestos Task-force, also released today, makes clear that the only “enduring solution” for this issue is the demolition of the affected homes. There is no other long term solution that is safe, or that will bring to an end the consternation this issue continues to engender.

The sad truth however for those facing this issue now is that such a conclusion was already clear almost 30 years ago. As I wrote in August, official advice issued by the Department of Territories during the mid 1980s warned that attempting to remove the loose-fill asbestos would likely cause the further spread of the invidious and invisible fibres and it would be unlikely to remove all the material anyway. Despite this advice, and an attempt to clean up a home in 1986 that ended disastrously, when it came time for the new ACT Government to developing a solution, they elected to clean rather than demolish.

Only in the midst of struggles over costs and contracting did the notion of demolition even arise, when it was suggested that crudely bulldozing the homes may be a more cost efficient option. Fortunately the ACT Asbestos Branch resisted such suggestions, given the rightful fears this would spread invisible asbestos fibres across whole suburbs, contaminating many more homes potentially.

The choice was made to pursue a novel and expensive method, that from the outset was recognised as only capable of removing the majority of the material that was visible and accessible. Hindsight is of course a wonderful thing, and we should not underestimate the significant economic and political pressures that existed in the late 1980s making a buyback and demolition unpalatable for governments, but as decisions go it was none the less a bad one.

Whether it is right that the Commonwealth is only providing a finance facility and not actually contributing to the final cost is likely to prompt some controversy. There is no question that the Commonwealth has significant culpability, at least so far as the situation in the ACT is concerned. The Commonwealth was the administrator of the territory when the operators, D Jansen & Co and later J & H Insulations, were permitted to use brown and blue asbestos as home insulation. The Commonwealth permitted its use, despite clear warnings from its own Department of Health and a growing body of evidence more broadly that pointed to the installers, tradespeople and home owners being put at risk.

The Commonwealth contributed a majority of the funds for the $100m clean-up program that ran from 1989 to 1993 that was administered by the then new ACT Government, and is party to a Memorandum of Understanding that states such a funding share is to prevail for future remediation work.

Yet it was the ACT Government that chose to clean the homes and designed the method for doing so. And while the upfront cost is one that is near insurmountable for the ACT’s finances, the final cost is one that the territory can absorb when one considers the relative cost of projects like the Capital Metro light rail.

How much each party should pay is a moral question, not a practical one. Ideally the Commonwealth would pay a share, but this isn’t the first time the ACT has had to cover the costs of a legacy problem the Commonwealth has left, nor will it be the last, and accusations the territory has been short changed are more emotive than rational.

Ultimately though it is the people affected by this toxic and fear inducing legacy that matter, and with today’s news, these people in Canberra will finally see some solace on the horizon. For those who have lost their home and for those who still have it but it feels like home no more, this program offers a resolution long overdue. A resolution that should never have been needed, but for which both the ACT and the Commonwealth should be commended for reaching.

Let us remember though that residents in New South Wales have long to lived with the burden and the risk of loose-fill asbestos insulation too. Properties in Queanbeyan, Yass, Bungendore and Batemans Bay are known to contain, or in the past contained, loose-fill asbestos insulation. New evidence points to properties elsewhere, including metropolitan Sydney, also being affected. Records suggest other operators used the material as far back as the 1950s, and that potentially asbestos containing insulations were also sold in New South Wales in the form of vermiculite. For residents over the border from the ACT, a resolution is still far from in sight, yet they are no less deserving of one.

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