Almost half the homes destroyed by last month’s Tathra bushfires contained asbestos, but authorities say the town is safe and there is no risk to residents.
Bega Valley Shire Council waste services manager Toby Browne said 30 of the 68 homes razed by the fires, which began on March 18, contained asbestos.
Mr Browne said he expected up to 6000 tonnes of fire-damaged asbestos waste would be removed from the New South Wales seaside town in the coming weeks.
When work begins on Monday, waste will be taken to Eden Waste Depot on the NSW far south coast. The tip will be closed to the public for up to four months.
“Overall, we’re expecting anything up to 20,000 tonnes of waste,” Mr Browne said.
“Up to 6000 tonnes could be affected by asbestos, but that’s an upper estimate.”
Mr Browne said despite asbestos particles being released in Tathra during the fires, any risk to residents and tourists was “negligible”.
Only a tiny percentage of asbestos fibres were released in a fire as asbestos cement cracked and broke down, he said, with the majority of the fibres remaining bound in the cement, soil or ash where the material dropped.
“Most healthy adults have inhaled asbestos fibres and will never develop an asbestos-related illness,” Mr Browne said.
“The problem is a perception issue.
“The people walking past in the street, or living nearby, do not remove or dispose of asbestos as their occupation and are at negligible risk.”
Mr Browne said while no asbestos had yet been removed from Tathra, all affected properties were stabilised before residents were allowed to return to the town, which was off-limits for days following the fires.
“Every property was sprayed with PVA, which is like a glue that prevents the stirring up of dust,” he said.
“They were all then looked at on a case-by-case basis to determine whether they contained asbestos.”
Mr Browne said the risk to workers removing and disposing of asbestos would be managed by wetting down, daily covering of the waste, air monitoring, and the closure of the Eden disposal site to the public.
The New South Wales Government has allocated $10 million to remove asbestos, dangerous debris and concrete slabs from Tathra, and to help residents clean up their properties.
Mr Browne said Bega Valley Shire Council would also seek about $1 million in further funding to cover the cost of disposal.
There were no concerns about the Mr Fluffy asbestos that contaminated thousands of Canberra homes, with each of the 1257 Bega Valley properties tested since 2014 as part of a NSW Government scheme found not to contain loose-fill asbestos.
“The [Tathra] properties vary between fibro-cladded dwellings and brick veneer homes that contain some fibro,” Mr Browne said.
Council general manager Leanne Barnes encouraged tourists to continue visiting Tathra, after an influx over the long weekend provided a much-needed boost for local businesses.
“If you’d seen it at Easter, it was absolutely humming, which is great,” she said.
Ms Barnes said anyone wanting to help the Tathra community is encouraged to donate to the mayoral appeal fund, which has so far raised more than $450,000.