Ponsonby asbestos clean-up crew work to return people to homes after school fire

An asbestos cleanup team say they have been on their hands and knees vacuuming lawns in a bid get frustrated Ponsonby homeowners back into their contaminated properties as soon as possible.

About 20 homeowners have now spent more than a month away from their houses after Ponsonby Intermediate School erupted in a “ferocious” blaze on December 8.

The fire flared in the school’s roof before multiple explosions sent billowing, asbestos-carrying smoke more than 100m down a neighbouring street.

A day later, Auckland Regional Public Health teams told the owners of 12 homes closest to the school to leave their properties until they were cleaned.

Hazardous materials specialists Morecroft Group had since been appointed to clean eight homes, doing everything from hand-picking large chunks of asbestos to removing entire garden beds and hedges.

“It is not often that we get to vacuum someone’s lawns, but we’ve been down on our hands and knees here vacuuming lawns,” Morecroft’s Jason Catterall said.

“Every single exterior surface, all the shrubs, bushes, trees, grass, flowerbeds, driveways, vehicles, windows, roof, gutters – everything has got asbestos in it.”

He said the scale of the Ponsonby clean-up was enormous. Everything had to be tested for asbestos.

If any porous material, such as a garden plant or a fabric-covered chair inside a house, tested positive for even one asbestos fibre, insurance assessors had to make a decision to either clean the item or throw it away.

Positive tests could not be ignored under rules set by workplace safety regulator WorkSafe.

“Our job is to clean everything as much as possible, but there are thousands of nooks and crannies and thousands of surfaces,” Catterall said.

But while the Ponsonby clean-up was one of the largest residential jobs Catterall had worked on as a result of a fire, he warned there would be more.

He estimated asbestos was in up to 80 per cent of Kiwi buildings, including many other schools.

From the 1940s to the 1980s and even into the 1990s, it was prized for its effectiveness as a fire retardant, and reinforcing and water-resistant material.

When safely encapsulated in a building, it posed no risk.

However, if damaged or sawn apart it released asbestos fibres capable of causing deadly forms of cancer when a person suffered long-term exposure.

Workplace health and safety regulator WorkSafe required commercial buildings to have an asbestos register so tradesmen working on site knew where it was and how to safely manage it.

“But fires threw all that out the window,” Catterall said.

At high heats, asbestos exploded and could be fired into the air and carried away by smoke as it was in the Ponsonby Intermediate School fire.

Act party politician Simon Court, who has taken up the homeowners’ cause, said that made it critical authorities learned lessons from their response to the Ponsonby fire.

Residents told Court firefighters had seemed to realise quickly that they were dealing with asbestos as they kitted up in protective gear.

However, residents claimed that information was not passed on to those standing by near the fire or others like Jane Sundstrum, whose windows were open and who now worried her interior furnishings could need replacing due to asbestos contamination.

They said it was a day later before health teams arrived in the street to door knock and warn of the health risks.

Court said that was in contrast to a fire at a Papakura scrap yard on Hunua St on Wednesday in which Civil Defence sent an emergency text alert to nearby residents.

He also accused authorities of giving bad advice.

That included telling residents to mow their lawns – an action Court said could spread dangerous asbestos – and then leaving residents to manage the clean up themselves, despite the fire taking place on government property.

The Ministry of Education, Auckland Regional Public Health and Auckland Council said in a joint statement they were continuing to support residents who had “questions or concerns”.

They had also been to the properties to check progress and provide advice, they said.

“On-going air monitoring shows the guideline levels for asbestos have not been exceeded at any stage since the fire,” they said.

Ponsonby Intermediate School’s clean-up was also nearly complete, with students able to safely “return in the next few weeks”.

Morecroft’s Catterall said he wasn’t critical of the council. Its staff had been to the site once and he would welcome them down again to learn more about the clean-up if they wished.

Having thoroughly documented the clean-up, he also hoped to give a presentation later about the process to help with future operations.

The government bodies said that after every event, they carried out “evaluations to identify any learnings for future responses”.

Still, after such a complicated clean-up there was light at the end of the tunnel, Catterall said.

The first two homeowners were now back in their home with hopes everyone could return within the next two weeks.

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