An Auckland mother was struck by her son's heartbreaking plea as she and other parents battle a school about removal of 700 tonnes of asbestos-contaminated soil.
Sally Bunce has organised for her 6-year-old son to stay away from Hobsonville Primary School today as it prepares to dig up the asbestos-laden broken cement water pipes discovered during construction of a new drop-off zone.
Bunce says she's one of about 35 parents who haven't sent their child to school today which was when the removal was due to begin.
Meanwhile, Australian lawyer Theodora Ahilas - of legal giant Maurice Blackburn - has also spoken out in support of the parents and say they have every right to be concerned for their children's health.
A Ministry of Education representative this morning confirmed prep work still needs to be done and the removal won't begin until Wednesday, despite diggers being at the site.
While all parties want the asbestos removed, the parents don't want it to happen while their children are at school and prefer it to wait until the holidays. But the school, and Ministry, are adamant it needs to be removed as soon as possible.
When asked about how her son felt about having to stay home from school, Bunce was shocked by what he said.
"My son, he's only little, he's 6, he said 'I don't think I should go to school mummy because I don't want to die'."
Bunce was floored by the response and wasn't sure where he would have come to that conclusion as she had not spoken about asbestos in that much detail to him.
"I don't know where he's got that from."
However, he and another child from the school were staying away today. She's unsure how long she will keep her son away from school and remained frustrated that the school and ministry were steadfast about removing the asbestos during school hours.
"It just seems to me that there are so many alternatives ... everybody is saying that it needs to be removed but we're concerned about is why they're doing it during school time."
She said communications from the school had been poor, given it knew about the possible asbestos risk back in November.
"Just to say that everything will be fine just because it probably will be, that doesn't sit well with me. This is a serious issue. It's not just, do we want black pens or do we want blue?"
School board chairman Lance Norman said this morning he was still to receive an update from the Ministry of Education.
However, Norman had asked that a ministry representative to be at the school today to take questions from parents.
He said he was also unimpressed at the lack of information.
"I'm a bit frustrated because the ministry has been quite quiet on this and at the moment myself, the board and the principal are in the gun on it.
"Their lack of visibility has been unhelpful, so we've just sent a bit of a terse note to the ministry saying please get someone [at school] so every parent has the opportunity to talk to someone who is not a board member or a principal so they can actually hear it from the horse's mouth rather than hearing it second-hand from us."
As for how many children haven't turned up today, the school had received 20 emails as of last night.
Sydney based-lawyer Theodora Ahilas has dealt solely with victims of asbestos for the past 25 years.
She contacted the Herald concerned at the Ministry's apparent "cavalier" attitude toward the pupils' exposure to asbestos.
She said the pupils were at risk from one exposure or as little as 5 minutes or a whole day.
"As a parent I would be very concerned with that situation ... you cannot do that in school hours. I mean, that's unbelievable. The Government has to be accountable, it owes an obligation to its citizens.
"Of course there's going to be an outcry about it because there's not enough consultation about it and not enough information given to people about what's going on and that sort of exposure is a real risk which could materialise into disease into the future. You don't know."
Parent Natalie Marsh said she was aware of about 40 parents who had decided not to send their children to school.
Another parent said she had taken her 10-year-old son out and was investigating whether he could temporarily enrol at another school during the excavation.
"In 10 years time, if something happens with these kids who is going to be held responsible?" Marsh asked.
Another parent had been told of possible plans to hold a meeting with parents at the school tonight. However, when questioned, Norman said he was unaware of it.
A soil scientist, who did not want to be named, who is working with Government agencies to draft guidelines for the safe use of asbestos, said it was "possible" that if the removalist had robust procedures set up the risk to children would be minimised.
"On the face of it, it doesn't sound good but I really need to know more of the detail of what's been done beforehand and how they arrived at their decision."
However, he said board chair Lance Norman wasn't correct in saying the work had to be carried out immediately.
"I think the [principal] shot himself in the foot by saying that we can't wait till the school holidays because that's not really a justifiable solution. If there's a risk to the kids then that needs to be defined."
He said there was a commercially-available product, polymer, which is sprayed onto asbestos contaminated areas, covering it until it needs to be dug up in any of the school holidays.
He said it was a product commonly used during the Christchurch rebuild.
Kim Shannon, the ministry's head of education infrastructure service, confirmed no soil would be removed today.
"Today we are preparing the site. We are continuing discussions with the school about the project."
Shannon also clarified that although they need to remove 700 tonnes of soil to make way for the new drop-off area, not all of that contained traces of asbestos.
"Of the 700 tonnes, we estimate 360 tonnes of the soil to be removed may have traces of asbestos.
"The remaining soil does not contain asbestos traces, but will need to be removed anyway to create the drop-off area."
When questioned about the role it was taking in the project, a WorkSafe spokesman said its role was "administering the legislation and the licensing system for asbestos removalists".
"The Health and Safety at Work Act (2015) places a duty on the school to identify and manage their risks. The school has identified asbestos contaminated soil as a risk and sought the services of a licensed removalist to best manage that risk.
"Prior to undertaking asbestos removal work there is a duty on the removalist under the Health and Safety at Work (Asbestos) Regulations 2016 to notify WorkSafe of the job. The company must identify and manage the risks from their work and then any work must be carried out in accordance with the Act and with the regulations."
The spokesman said it was up to the school and the removalist to "ensure that the safety of the children is paramount" and also to decide on the best time to remove the asbestos.
The Ministry of Education is carrying out the following procedures to ensure the children's safety;
•Air monitoring is on site - the most recent testing shows there are no particles in the air
•Asbestos will be removed by specialist asbestos removal experts in accordance with health and safety legislation
•The asbestos removal plan has been reviewed by the ministry's internal health and safety team for extra checking
•WorkSafe NZ has been notified
•The removal site will be fully fenced off with solid fencing lined with a dust control material to isolate the area from people.
•We will closely monitor air quality while work is going on to ensure asbestos is not getting into the air. Air monitors will be located around the perimeter of the site.