Investigations will be carried out into how asbestos came to be present at Harrison School, with seven garden beds now cordoned off and questions asked about the safety of students at the school.
On Thursday afternoon, the Canberra Liberals held a media conference to draw public attention to the presence of asbestos at the school after first confirming this with the ACT Work Safety Commissioner.
The Canberra Liberals said they were concerned over the safety of school students and asked how long the asbestos had been at the school and what action the Government was taking given that “any other site in Canberra would have been shut down”.
On Friday ACT Education Minister Yvette Berry stressed that the asbestos in the school garden beds was not “Mr Fluffy asbestos” but instead is “pieces of bonded asbestos – very small amounts – that has appeared in these garden beds as part of a gravel mix”.
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Ms Berry insisted that action was taken to inform the school community about the situation as soon as the presence of the asbestos was confirmed and accused the Opposition of “fearmongering”.
“The school has done everything it can to make sure that the community is safe and informed about the issue and how it’s being safely managed,” Ms Berry said.
“Seven of the eight garden beds have been cordoned off and are now out of bounds for school students,” she said.
“There has been security engaged to ensure that nobody interferes with those areas at all – keeping in mind that this bonded asbestos is not unsafe unless it’s disturbed. Then it can be unsafe but this is a small amount of asbestos that is being managed safely.
“The next part of this is investigating where it came from and how it came to be in the school.
“The school’s a relatively new school and there’s no reason to believe there should have been any asbestos at that school. So part of this now, which will take a little bit of time, is to find out where it came from.”
The Canberra Liberals said that they were made aware of the presence of asbestos in the school yard by a very concerned citizen who is connected to the school community.
ACT Opposition Leader Alistair Coe said that they approached the ACT Work Safety Commissioner and received confirmation of the presence of asbestos before going public with their concerns.
“There is no doubt in my mind and in the minds of the Opposition that there is a genuine public safety concern here and there is a real interest in the community knowing about it,” Mr Coe said on Thursday.
“There is no doubt that if this was any other site in Canberra it would have been shut down and yet it is business as usual at the school today.”
Opposition education spokesperson Elizabeth Lee said Harrison School is one of Canberra’s largest schools, with almost 2,000 students.
“This revelation that has come to light is extremely, extremely worrying not only for the students who go to Harrison, not only for the staff and the principal, but for the parents and also the broader community within that facility,” Ms Lee said.
Mr Coe wanted to know why the Government didn’t take action to inform parents about the problem as soon as they knew about it.
On Thursday afternoon, some parents of children at the school who spoke to the media appeared not to be aware of the presence of asbestos in the school’s garden beds – a day after the asbestos was identified.
However, Ms Berry responded on Friday to the Opposition’s concerns by saying the school took action on Wednesday, as soon as the asbestos was confirmed. She traced through the series of events prior to that.
“On Monday afternoon the school was asked the question ‘what is this here, can we investigate it?’,” Ms Berry said.
“It was investigated on Tuesday. The results of that test were informed back to the school on Wednesday and immediately the school took action, engaged WorkSafe earlier than other test results [were ready] to make sure that the appropriate safety measures were put in place and then the school community were informed.”
A spokesperson for the Education Directorate said that a small amount of ‘non-friable’ asbestos was identified as being mixed in with gravel and recycled building materials in Harrison School’s garden beds.
“WorkSafe has been notified and initial removal works of the garden bed material by licensed asbestos removalists will begin in coming days. A plan to rehabilitate the area with new gardens will then be developed,” the Education Directorate spokesperson said.