NSW government ‘very concerned’ about asbestos found in Sydney landscaping soil | Soil contamination

The NSW government is “very concerned” that asbestos has been found in landscaping soil bought in Sydney, the environment minister has said.

A Guardian Australia investigation revealed this week that contaminated soil fill products were on sale at landscape and garden stores, a decade after NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) investigators first raised concerns about potential contamination.

The Greens said the revelation pointed to widespread and systemic failure.

But the government has delayed taking action until the state’s chief scientist completes his review into the management of asbestos, which is expected to be delivered in December, at least a year behind schedule.

That review is examining approaches to asbestos management in other Australian jurisdictions and whether a “tolerable threshold level” can be set for asbestos in waste intended for beneficial reuse.

The minister, Penny Sharpe, said the government would make any “necessary changes” once it received the chief scientist’s advice. The final report was due by the end of last year.

“It is illegal to provide any product that contains asbestos. The NSW government is very concerned,” Sharpe said when asked about Guardian Australia’s findings.

Sharpe pointed to new laws that increase maximum penalties for breaching resource recovery orders from $44,000 to $2m, or $4m where asbestos is involved.

But the Greens environment spokesperson, Sue Higginson, said it was “obvious” the new laws had not been enough to protect consumers from potentially harmful products.

The Guardian also revealed this week that some of the best-known waste companies in NSW were among those that broke safety rules meant to limit the spread of contamination found in a type of cheap soil fill.

The soil fill, made from recycled residues from construction and demolition sites, is known as “recovered fines”. An estimated 700,000 tonnes of the product is applied to land in NSW each year.

Higginson, who had asked for the names of the waste companies that had breached regulations to be tabled in parliament, called for a review of landscaping product supply chains and a new regime for tracking recovered fines.

She said the contamination found in the products the Guardian bought and tested was not a one-off situation.

“What we are seeing is evidence of a widespread and systemic failure that is putting potentially dangerous materials into household products, and the community is not being informed of the risks,” she said.

Guardian Australia reported earlier this year that the environmental regulator had known for more than a decade that some producers of recovered fines had failed to comply with rules to limit the spread of contaminants such as lead and asbestos.

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The EPA’s investigations found that instead of reporting non-compliant results to the watchdog and disposing of contaminated products, some companies asked private laboratories to retest samples until they received a compliant result.

In 2022, under the former Coalition government, the EPA abandoned a proposal to tighten the regulations for producers of recovered fines products after pressure from the waste industry.

The small business minister at the time, Eleni Petinos, welcomed the about-face as a win for small skip bin operators, which she said would have faced a significant financial burden from stricter testing and sampling rules.

In December 2022, the Coalition government commissioned the chief scientist’s review.

The opposition environment spokesperson, Kellie Sloane, said the government should prioritise the review.

“Just as the opposition supported tougher penalties for operators doing the wrong thing earlier this year, we would welcome the opportunity to review the findings,” she said.

“The public should have confidence that they are not purchasing contaminated landscaping products.”

An EPA spokesperson said earlier this week the watchdog was considering further regulatory change, which would be informed by the chief scientist’s review.

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