Belinda Feek is a NZ Herald reporter

Asbestos removal work at Auckland school put on hold by the Ministry of Education

Fencing of a section of asbestos-contaminated soil at Hobsonville Primary School taken by a parent in February. Photo/Natalie Marsh
Fencing of a section of asbestos-contaminated soil at Hobsonville Primary School taken by a parent in February. Photo/Natalie Marsh

Asbestos removal work at an Auckland primary school has been put on hold by the Ministry of Education due to concerns from parents.

A joint statement from the ministry's Kim Shannon and Hobsonville Primary School board chairman Lance Norman said this afternoon that they "will now review when the work goes ahead".

"The Easter school holidays is the next logical opportunity. Not all of the work would be completed during that Easter holiday period.

"We've listened to the concerns of a number of parents who don't feel they have been adequately informed about the work that is planned on the site.

"We have decided to pause further work on the site so we can provide more information about the planned work.

"We would like to assure parents that we are confident that this work can be carried out safely."

Concerned parents are thankful for the ministry's about-turn.

Lea Ann Case has an 11-year-old daughter at the school and described the news as a "major relief".

"I'm very, very pleased and am now hoping the next step will be for the school to call a meeting for the parents and teachers to work out some options."

It would be preferable if the school could remain closed for a couple of days after the holidays if the work needed to continue, Case said.

Sally Bunce is a parent of a 6-year-old and said she was "thrilled" with the news, while Natalie Marsh, who has led the charge collectively for parents, was also pleased, but would have been happier if the project got pushed out until Christmas.

Ivana Mlinac is "extremely happy" with the result.

"It is just a little disappointing that this couldn't be rationaled by the school in the first place and that this fight had to come from us and not those who have leadership roles and various responsibility for the health and safety of a larger number of children within the school."

She said the fight took "a lot of strength, sleepless nights" but was worth it in the end as the right decision had been made.

The school discovered the asbestos in a section of soil during construction of a new drop-off bay in October.

Tests confirmed in December that a 360-tonne section of soil was contaminated with traces of asbestos before parents were informed of its planned removal in February.

Experts spoken to by the Herald also questioned the ministry's urgency.

Mike Mechaelis of Hill Laboratories is working with government agencies to draft up guidelines in dealing with asbestos, and says there doesn't appear to be any reason the excavation has to be done during Hobsonville Primary School hours.

Mechaelis said yesterday that the parents had a right to be concerned.

"Fair enough for the parents. There is absolutely risk for the kids, for them to excavate during school hours.

Mechaelis said non-friable asbestos simply became friable once it was disturbed.

"There is the risk of material becoming airborne. It's just a stupid risk to take. Why would you do it?"

Australian lawyer Theodora Ahilas - of legal giant Maurice Blackburn - also spoke out in support of the parents and said they had every right to be concerned for their children's health.

Ahilas has dealt solely with victims of asbestos for the past 25 years.

She said the pupils were at risk from one exposure for as little as five 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."

A soil scientist, who did not want to be named but 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."

He said there was a commercially available product, polymer, which is sprayed on to asbestos contaminated areas, covering it until it needs to be dug up.

Shannon said the risk of disease was directly related to the amount of asbestos and length of exposure. Short-term, low-level exposure is likely to pose negligible risk.

She said the ministry has been planning to build a drop-off zone for traffic at Hobsonville School to provide a safer environment for staff and students.

"When we were carrying out routine surveys and ground tests before starting this work, we discovered there was material containing asbestos in the ground. This is likely to be as a result of old stormwater pipes.

"A variety of building materials containing asbestos were in widespread use in New Zealand until the 1980s, so it isn't uncommon for us to find asbestos in the ground.

"The most important thing is how we deal with it. We immediately isolated the area, notified WorkSafe New Zealand that it would be removed, and engaged a licensed asbestos removalist.

"Where asbestos is left in place, and is in good condition, it is a safe material," she said. "When it is being removed, as long as asbestos is appropriately handled, it is considered to be safe."

- NZ Herald

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