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Remote Australian communities: the asbestos legacy

Date created: Date modified: 10 Aug 2020

Article first written in 2016, updated in 2019.

A report into asbestos in remote Australia has set out ways that communities and government can work together to manage the identification and removal of deadly legacy asbestos in remote areas to eliminate the ongoing risks.

Asbestos in these remote communities primarily effects First Nations peoples.

The study, commissioned by the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency (ASEA), looked at asbestos management practices and current issues faced in remote areas in Northern Territory, South Australia, Queensland, NSW and Western Australia.

“Asbestos is a problem in all parts of the country, but there are unique challenges with asbestos in remote Australian communities,” the former Chief Executive Officer of ASEA, Peter Tighe, said.

“The legacy of asbestos is felt everywhere, but for remote Indigenous communities it’s an even bigger problem. 

"No one - no matter where they live or how remote, should be exposed to asbestos.

“Indigenous corporations and land councils inherited ageing infrastructure that was full of asbestos – structures such as housing, churches and public buildings – and they require targeted resources to deal with this legacy.

“The cost of removing asbestos in remote areas is up to three times higher than for other parts of the country. And in most cases the communities have limited resources and many other priorities to address. This creates an ongoing challenge to effectively manage this insidious risk.  

“The findings of this study give remote communities and governments practical options to consider which can overcome the enormous obstacles to dealing with asbestos. The study has examined what works, and sets out effective ways to tackle this problem.

“Importantly, the report is realistic about limited funding and has a focus on ways to do things better right now. It also recognises that what works in one remote community might not work in another, and accordingly recommends a broad range of approaches based on the practical experience of community stakeholders.”

The report sets out seven approaches to better managing asbestos in remote communities:

  1. Building partnerships among organisations managing asbestos and increasing the participation of Indigenous corporations and land councils in those partnerships
  2. Building the capability of existing staff in regional councils, land councils and Aboriginal corporations, and tapping into the expertise of those in the community with experience in managing asbestos.
  3. Incorporating asbestos management into other community waste management initiatives.
  4. Following best practice models for communication with remote communities, and updating cultural awareness training at regional councils.
  5. Maximise community engagement, through land councils, long-term active residents, senior community leaders and Elders.
  6. Adopt a co-operative approach to the use of existing infrastructure and equipment in the removal of asbestos.
  7. Attract, train and retain a qualified local workforce to make significant in-roads in managing asbestos risks and deliver significant cost savings.

The study was conducted by Matrix on Board Consulting for ASEA in 2016. The findings remain current today. In total, 52 stakeholders including regional councils and Aboriginal corporations, government bodies and institutions, and private contractors working in remote communities participated in the project.