Not just Telstra: illegal asbestos dumping on the rise nationally

Telstra isn’t the only one. The former telecoms monopoly is under fire for a recent surge in cases of unsafe disposal of asbestos from its underground communications pits, but illegal dumping is on the rise more generally as disposal costs have risen, the Master Builders Association of NSW says.

“Over the last two years we’ve seen a marked increase in illegal dumping,” MBA NSW executive director Brian Seidler told BRW on Tuesday. “The cost of taking it to the appropriate dumping grounds has gone up.”

The costs can be high. The removal of asbestos from a single Telstra communications pit – which could contain asbestos either fixed in bonded form or in a ‘friable’ form, susceptible to breaking up and releasing fibres – could cost between $1500 and $2000, estimates Sydney-based contractor Ross Mitchell and Associates’ Stephen Hickey. That excludes the cost of other items such as air monitoring, mandatory when the asbestos is friable, and an independent assessor.

While not all offences are as serious or as prolonged as the repeat offences committed by NSW man Dib Hanna, who was given a three-month suspended jail sentence in April for dumping 80 tonnes of asbestos-laced material building material in south-west Sydney, the number of people flouting the law because of high costs is growing, Seidler says.

In Victoria also, illegal dumping seems to be on the rise. The state’s Environmental Protection Authority says there was a 20 per cent increase last year in the number of notices being issued by its Illegal Dumping Strike Force to companies and individuals for illegal dumping related incidents.

The EPA says councils pay on average $75,000 a year to address the issue of illegally dumped asbestos.

In NSW, political leaders are seeking to enforce compliance by introducing harsher penalties. Last month environment minister Robyn Parker said she would introduce legislation to replace the current fine with a maximum two-year jail sentence for offenders who committed a crime within five years of a previous offence. Seidler says greater compliance will only be achieved by making it cheaper to dump waste such as asbestos.

“It’s been the MBA’s position in NSW that if you want to get more compliance with people dumping correctly, you have to reduce the price or make it free,” Sideler says. “You make it free then you’ll have more compliance.”

Telstra has seen its share price slump in the wake of news that subcontractors working on a number of its pits and other sites around the country had failed to dispose of the potentially carcinogenic material safely and on Monday federal safety regulator Comcare chief Paul O’Connor told a Senate hearing it had identified 20 incidents of asbestos mishandling since January – compared to only ten such incidents in the years since 1996.

And while the costs of asbestos removal can be high, the clean-up costs are worse. Hickey, whose company works for government and large official clients, says once a site becomes contaminated, as has happened in Penrith in western Sydney, the costs surge, because the clean-up process can include wiping down the fronts of houses, digging up soil and vacuuming cars.

“The costs after doing it wrong – on a job like western Sydney – are anything from $20,000 to $60,000.” he says.

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