By the time it is finished in 2019, an $11.35 million project to rehabilitate 1.2 kilometres of the Upper Stony Creek in the west Melbourne suburb of Sunshine will see an area which is now an ugly concrete drain restored to a vibrant community space with walking paths, wetlands and a revegetated creek bed.

All up, the area will feature 290,000 plants including 5,700 meters squares of new native grassland and 220 new indigenous trees.

Work ground to a halt in August, however, after asbestos was discovered at the site. Residents describe seeing large affected areas which have a powdery green look to them.

Events such as this highlight roadblocks which even relatively straightforward urban renewal projects can encounter in respect of potential contamination due to asbestos.

On larger projects, costs can be enormous. On the 127 hectare Maribyrnong Defence Site which is expected to be the site of around 6,000 new homes in Melbourne’s inner-west after, media reports suggest that remediation to clean up a cocktail of chemicals which includes asbestos as well as fuel residue and heavy metals could cost as much as $500 million and take up to five years.

Widely used through Australia in building materials from the 1930’s until the mid-1980s, asbestos can be a deadly material exposure to which can potentially cause asbestosis, mesothelioma and/or lung cancer and was banned completely in 2004 in Australia.

Courtesy of its previous use, however, the potential for asbestos contamination across many sites which are considered for urban renewal is significant.

The raises questions about strategies which are needed to manage risk associated with potentially contaminated sites when undertaking urban regeneration. In a written response to questions, Steven Hains, National Practice Lead – Property at national risk management consultancy Greencap, provided some insights.

According to Hains, it is important to be aware of the potential for asbestos contamination and to undertake investigations early on. This should include an examination of both existing buildings and structures on a property and the underlying land and soil. It should also include an understanding of prior land uses.

Hains cautions that asbestos is not the only contaminant which can be present. In terms of land, he says contamination can also arise from other substances and materials such as hydrocarbons, heavy metals and pesticides. In buildings, hazardous materials can also include lead paint/dust and poly-chlorinated biphenyl (PCBs).

According to Hains, asbestos was used extensively in construction materials throughout Australia up until the mid-1980s and even in some products up until 2003 before it was completely banned from importation and use.  Up until approximately 1980, he says the material was widely used in pipework lagging and fire proofing structures. Until the mid-1980s, it continued to be used in fibre cement sheeting as well as within products such as vinyl floor tiles.

As well as creating hazards within buildings and structures, Hains says some soil has also been contaminated as a result of damage and weathering of asbestos containing materials within the structure. In addition, during the time when asbestos was being widely used, it was common for waste or scrap material to be buried on site. As a result, there was potential for the contamination of the surrounding ground and soil on many sites.

He says the presence or otherwise of asbestos in building materials or soil can only be confirmed using a microscope at a specialist testing laboratory. In hand specimen, asbestos-containing products typically appear in a bonded form such as in fibrocement type materials or in a friable form such as in powder/lagging type materials. It can be found in a wide range of materials such as electrical backing boards and fuses, mastics, ropes, gaskets, brakes and building penetration packings.

Asked about common mistakes regarding asbestos risk management for urban renewal projects, Hains says these fall into several areas.

First, there can be a failure to identify either the presence of asbestos containing materials or other contaminants or the risk that these could be present. Identifying potential issues early on can deliver significant gains in terms of risk reduction and cost savings over the life of the project, he says. These include savings associated with avoiding variations or project delays.

Another issue involves a lack of understanding about what to do when asbestos is discovered in areas where it was not expected and an absence of documented procedures to follow in cases where this happens. As well as extra costs and delays, this can lead to workers being potentially exposed to asbestos related hazards.

Finally, Hains says a further challenge involves different legislation and industry practices across states and territories – a particular challenge for organisations whose operations cross state boundaries. On urban renewal projects, he says there is significant crossover between the requirements of the various state based legislation in occupational health and safety (OHS) or work health and safety (WHS) and environmental legislation in each state.

Under the various pieces of OHS/WHS legislation across states, he says there is a broad obligation to protect the health of workers during construction by, as far as reasonably practicable, removing any asbestos which would otherwise be disturbed during construction works.

Environmental legislation, however, differs in each state and the requirements in terms of end land use under the what is known as the National Environmental Protection Measure (NEPM) differ from the classification requirements for offsite disposal. Whilst these are broadly complementary, Hains says there may be conflicting requirements about the materials which need to be removed and those which may remain in situ if managed appropriately.

In some cases, Hains says the conflict in these areas can lead to mistakes.

In terms of strategies, Hains says early consideration of potential hazards is paramount, as is a thorough understanding of the property’s risk profile. This includes an investigation of the potential both for asbestos containing materials in buildings and structures along with the prospect of contamination of the soil. This exercise can include both desktop components such as database searches and on-site activities such as physical inspection and testing/sampling.

Where either loose asbestos or asbestos containing materials are found within the soil, Hains says advice on how this can be managed for the proposed future site use is needed.  He says there are numerous options available depending on time, cost and space limitations. A useful exercise, he says, can be to prepare a matrix outlining each of the different costs and options. Once this has been done, the project manager and site owner can select the most suitable approach.

Depending upon the findings and risk profile of the site, an environmental management plan may be required. This should include (but not be limited to):

  • A description of the site specific risk profile
  • Management strategies/control measures for identified hazardous materials
  • Processes designed to minimise site worker exposure
  • A site plan identifying onsite areas for stockpiling, abatement, loading of soil, etc.
  • Personal protective equipment requirements
  • Procedures for using and cleaning machinery
  • Unexpected finds procedures; and
  • Emergency disturbance procedures

On a final note, Hains says selection of the right consultants is necessary. Consultants used, he said, should be skilled both in occupational hygiene (worker safety) and environmental risk (e.g. waste classification and land use).

A spokesperson for Urban Growth NSW, a public sector agency that works with private partners and the community to unlock urban transformation initiatives, said asbestos can be found in more than 3,000 different products due to its prior prevalent use. These include fibro, flue pipes, drains, roofs, gutters, brakes, clutches and gaskets.

Such discoveries, the spokesperson said, are not uncommon during renovation on heritage buildings.

Speaking of the situation in New South Wales, the spokesperson says anyone who engages in work involving asbestos or asbestos containing material is required under the WHS Act and WHS Regulations 2017 (NSW) to prepare and maintain an asbestos management plan, have safe work procedures and control measures, have in place incident and emergency procedures and have in place consultation arrangements, responsibilities and training details of workers who perform asbestos work. Specifically in relation to work involving buildings, the plan needs to consider the age and condition of the building, all available information about latent conditions and possible asbestos, an asbestos management plan for working with and removing asbestos and ensuring compliance with the WHS Act and WHS Regulations. Whilst different legislation in other states or territories, these requirements are broadly the same in each jurisdiction.

Asbestos is a significant concern on urban renewal sites in Australia.

With sensible strategies, risks associated with this can be managed to an acceptable level.