Asbestos tests under way for another Melbourne park as mulch crackdown urged

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Investigators are also examining asbestos found in soil, not mulch, at Hosken Reserve in Coburg North, and testing large pieces of potential asbestos found at Shore Reserve in Pascoe Vale South after inspections on Saturday. Both parks fall under Merri-bek Council’s jurisdiction.

The EPA believes some of the asbestos has been illegally dumped, but said the mulch at Hosken Reserve was thought to have been supplied in 2017, though Hobsons Bay City Council had not yet confirmed who the supplier was.

Expert Jeff Angel, director of the Total Environment Centre, said the problem of asbestos in mulch was “unlikely to be just a few bad apples” in the supply chain. “This is a systemic problem for Australia,” he said.

Asbestos can get into mulch and soil made from sites where old buildings containing it are knocked down. But, often, contamination happens at recycling plants, Angel said, where testing for contaminants “can be lax”.

“There’s always a battle between wanting to turn this stuff away from landfill and into mulch and soil, and wanting to make sure it’s not polluted with asbestos, heavy metals, other nasties,” he said. “You meet your recycling goals, but there can be a dangerous trade-off.”

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Bonded asbestos is considered low risk, the EPA said, “unless it is damaged or badly weathered, resulting in asbestos fibres being released into the air”.

Angel warned all asbestos degraded and so posed dangers. “The public are really sensitive to this,” he said, backing calls from the Victorian Liberals for a taskforce and more widespread pre-emptive testing at public spaces around the state.

The EPA said it had already inspected 59 mulch producers in Victoria over the past five weeks without finding asbestos, in light of the recent NSW scandal, adding “risk controls were generally of a high standard” though “six sites were required to make improvements”.

In Sydney, the discovery of asbestos-contaminated mulch at 75 sites, including seven schools, triggered NSW EPA’s biggest probe ever and likely tougher laws.

When asked on Sunday if Victoria needed to follow NSW in creating a taskforce to investigate asbestos, Premier Jacinta Allan said the EPA already had strong powers.

“We need to let them do their job,” she said.

David Clarke, who heads the Municipal Association of Victoria, which represents local councils, said that in light of asbestos discoveries in NSW and now Victoria, it might be time for a crackdown on mulch supply, which is largely unregulated.

But at the very least, a testing regime was needed, he said. “We would think it wise if councils get the supplies they have in storage tested quickly.”

The state opposition has accused the government of dropping the ball on regulation, saying it was warned last year that agencies were no longer collecting information to stop illegal asbestos dumping.

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A key government program collapsed earlier this year.

This masthead revealed in January that a plan to expand the number of safe landfill sites, led by Sustainability Victoria, lost funding beyond March 2024.

Moira Deeming, the upper house MP for the Western Metropolitan Region, has demanded mandatory independent testing of materials created in recycling facilities.

The Australian Services Union, which represents council staff and contractors who worked at the Spotswood park, has also raised concerns that workers may have been exposed to the potentially deadly substance, querying what training and protections had been put in place.

A spokesman for Boroondara Council in Melbourne’s inner east said no asbestos had been found in any mulch in the parks it runs as it only uses wood sourced from local trees during maintenance to create mulch, rather than relying on external suppliers, and so this wouldn’t contain building-site contaminants.

Hobsons Bay City Council has been contacted for comment.

Local Government Minister Melissa Horne, who is also the local member for the area, said on Saturday that the council had been “working hand in glove” with the EPA and that advice provided to her was that the risk to the public was low.

With Rachael Dexter

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