Sydney primary school closed after asbestos found in mulch

A primary school in south-west Sydney has been closed after asbestos was found in garden mulch which was supplied by the same company that produced mulch found to be contaminated at multiple locations across the city.

The New South Wales Environment Protection Authority on Sunday confirmed the presence of bonded asbestos in mulch at Liverpool West public school, where students will learn from home on Monday and Tuesday.

The environmental watchdog said it identified the school as a priority site for testing after learning the mulch used there was supplied by Greenlife Resource Recovery – the same company that supplied mulch to Rozelle parklands.

The discovery of bonded asbestos in the park on top of the Rozelle interchange in January prompted a broad investigation by the EPA and the NSW government, which has detected the contaminant at other sites across Sydney, as well as the south coast.

The EPA chief executive, Tony Chappel, on Sunday said he was concerned that bonded asbestos had been found at a primary school and his organisation would work “around the clock” to ensure the safety of the school community.

“On Friday afternoon (9 February), I was advised the school was a potential site,” Chappel said in a statement.

“As a result, our officers and a licensed asbestos assessor were sent out first thing Saturday morning to test and this afternoon, we were notified that one sample contained a single piece of bonded asbestos.”

He said the site would be secured urgently and the mulch would be cleaned up and replaced on Monday.

“We understand that finding asbestos at a school is extremely concerning for families and we are working as quickly as possible to get to the bottom of this situation,” he said.

The school has enacted its asbestos protocol and temporarily shut down, meaning students will be taught remotely on Monday and Tuesday.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education said all but one sample of mulch taken from the school were free of asbestos but it was “exercising an abundance of caution to ensure the health of staff and students”.

Greenlife has been contacted for comment. The mulch supplier has hired a lawyer from commercial law firm Fishburn Watson O’Brien, Ross Fox, who said last week it was “too soon to jump to conclusions” about the source of the contamination.

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“Greenlife is at risk of being made a scapegoat for failures in complex construction projects on contaminated land,” Fox said in a statement.

“Greenlife’s role in the construction process was only the supply of mulch. It had no control over the landscaping of the mulch once on the sites nor could it prevent its mulch being mixed with any existing asbestos contaminated soils.”

The company has insisted its mulch was thoroughly tested and that “all tests verified unequivocally that the mulch was clean of asbestos”.

The discovery of asbestos at the school came a week after Transport for NSW announced it had found bonded asbestos in garden mulch at the new Nowra Bridge – the first time the contaminated product had been identified outside Sydney.

As part of its investigation the EPA has conducted more than 100 tests at sites across Sydney, with 13 returning a positive result for bonded asbestos, which NSW Health advises is a low risk to public health.

Bonded asbestos is considered lower-risk than friable asbestos because the hazardous particles are bonded in a harder substance, such as concrete, and are therefore less likely to become airborne and be ingested.

AAP contributed to this report.

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