Dozens of Sydney’s asbestos-contaminated sites not cleaned up six months after first discovery

<span>Rozelle Parklands in Sydney, where the asbestos contamination was first discovered in January, reopened in April.</span><span>Photograph: Peter Hannam</span>
Rozelle Parklands in Sydney, where the asbestos contamination was first discovered in January, reopened in April.Photograph: Peter Hannam

Dozens of contaminated sites in Sydney are yet to be cleaned up six months after asbestos was first discovered in mulch at a public park, as the New South Wales treasurer urges the environment regulator to “throw the book” at polluters.

The Environment Protection Authority is refusing to name the sites that are yet to be remediated as it continues its criminal investigation into the source of asbestos contamination in recycled garden mulch that was used widely across greater Sydney.

It comes as the office of the state’s chief scientist begins consultation about the management of asbestos in soil fill derived from mixed construction and demolition waste – known as recovered fines – and other types of recovered materials.

Related: Leading Australian labs retested landscape products for waste companies after contamination findings

The EPA has said that through consultation with landowners it “understands” more than 60% of the contaminated sites had been cleaned up including all schools, hospitals and other healthcare facilities.

Rozelle Parklands in Sydney’s inner west, where the contamination was first discovered in January when a child brought a piece of bonded asbestos home from a playground, reopened at the end of April.

The treasurer, Daniel Mookhey, told Guardian Australia polluters should pay for remediation but even if the EPA never laid charges, the government would foot the bill to keep people safe.

“It is right and proper that the EPA as a matter of policy recover that cost from polluters and Godspeed to them in that task,” he said.

But he said the government would not “put the lives of citizens at risk when it comes to something like asbestos and if the state has to pick it up, that is our job”.

He added: “We expect the EPA to enforce the law rigorously. They should throw the book at anyone who is callous about asbestos.”

Thirteen parks and reserves in the City of Sydney council area remain closed as they are either undergoing remediation or have yet to have their asbestos removal plans finalised.

A spokesperson for the council said the clean-up would take several months but it was working “as quickly as possible” and it shared the community’s frustration that their local parks were still affected.

“Much of the clean-up is being done by hand, with particular detail around our significant trees,” they said.

“We’ve completed clean-up at 5 of the larger parks and a smaller site where friable asbestos was found, clean-up is underway at another 9 parks and cleared 131 streetscape garden bed sites.”

The spokesperson said testing the possible sites of contamination identified by the EPA had cost the council more than $300,000 but the remediation costs were being paid by its “parks and open space maintenance contractor”.

An EPA spokesperson said it was up to public landowners to clean up affected sites.

“We’re working with all remaining sites to establish a reasonable timeframe to safely remove any remaining mulch,” they said.

“These incidents were widespread and serious in nature and we are undertaking a thorough investigation to ensure that any regulatory action is backed by appropriate and comprehensive evidence.”

They said the regulator was interviewing witnesses and other “persons of interest”.

Mulch in NSW is regulated under the Protection of the Environment Operations (Waste) Regulation 2014. It must not contain asbestos or other contaminants such as metal, plastics, polystyrene and glass.

The EPA’s investigation into the supply chain of mulch supplied by waste facility Greenlife Resource Recovery uncovered 75 additional contaminated sites across greater Sydney. Greenlife has denied it was responsible for the contamination.

Greenlife was allowed to resume selling mulch since late April when the EPA lifted a prevention notice it had issued the Bringelly-based business that had temporarily banned it from distributing its product.

Related: NSW government ‘very concerned’ about asbestos found in Sydney landscaping soil

The EPA said that “strict new conditions” had been applied to Greenlife’s environment licence including that its employees undertake a “refresher training course”.

The office of the chief scientist has also been reviewing the management of asbestos in recovered materials and is expected to report back to the government at the end of the year.

On Friday, it published a discussion paper seeking public input to the review, which will “evaluate any scientific evidence that would support alternative approaches to managing asbestos in recovered material and fines”.

This will include evaluating the “the potential adoption of thresholds as opposed to the current zero-tolerance approach” taken by the NSW government to the presence of asbestos in recycled materials.

Western Australia, for example, has an established limit for asbestos content in recycled construction and demolition waste of 0.001% by weight of the recovered product.

The review is also examining the sampling and analysis for asbestos in recovered fines and other types of recovered products.

An investigation by Guardian Australia earlier this year revealed the state’s Environment Protection Authority had known for more than a decade that facilities producing recovered fines were not complying with regulations intended to limit the spread of contaminants.

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