April 20, 2024

A school is one of 25 entities in Queensland’s south-east that were supplied mulch that could be contaminated with friable asbestos.

The state’s department of environment (DESI) confirmed the dangerous material was found at waste facility NuGrow on 20 February in a proactive investigation by the government after asbestos was discovered at more than 60 sites across New South Wales in what has become an ongoing crisis in that state.

NuGrow claimed earlier on Wednesday the asbestos found was bonded, which is less dangerous than friable asbestos. The company said there was “currently no evidence to suggest that people who may have come in contact with this material are at risk.”

But in the afternoon, DESI told Guardian Australia: “The asbestos material is friable and was detected following drying and sieving under a stereoscopic microscope.”

Guardian Australia has contacted NuGrow for a response to DESI’s test results.

The Queensland premier, Steven Miles, said: “All of the appropriate agencies are very focused on keeping Queenslanders safe from what could be an asbestos contamination in mulch.”

Miles said NuGrow had provided a list of about 25 businesses on Wednesday that had been supplied mulch.

“All of the agencies … are contacting those businesses to identify where the mulch could be and to organise for it to be tested,” he said.

Miles said he would make the list public as soon as possible and would be setting up a hotline for those concerned they may have been exposed to the mulch to get advice directly from experts.

Peter McKay, a regulator at Workplace Health and Safety Queensland (WHSQ), said one independent school in Queensland had been provided with product that was potentially contaminated, while most of the other businesses were landscape supply companies.

McKay said those businesses were located predominately in the south-east, with one business falling just outside the area.

“We’re working with NuGrow to clarify whether those 25 entities are from only from the one stockpile that returned the positive test, or whether they’re from a broader range stockpile,” he said.

The site, owned by NuGrow, was one of 23 landfill operations, transfer stations, landscape suppliers, composters and mulch suppliers tested across south-east Queensland by the department of environment and the asbestos safety unit of WHSQ.

It has been the only positive result, with the department still awaiting results for half of the sites inspected.

Brad Wirth, an executive director at the department, said the results were expected to be returned on Friday.

“What we saw in NSW triggered information to drive our program. So we selected a sample of operators across the state to understand those risks here in Queensland as well,” Wirth said.

How asbestos-contaminated mulch sparked the NSW EPA’s biggest investigation – video

He said he was not sure if any of the potentially contaminated material could have been distributed to people’s gardens.

Asbestos is prohibited from being accepted under NuGrow’s environmental authority. It is not clear where the asbestos came from.

The department was still considering whether the company could receive enforcement action for the detection of the asbestos at the facility.

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The department had expanded its inspection program to include some additional sites outside south-east Queensland.

The department planned to test air quality in the area and has been working with West Moreton Public Health Unit and WHSQ to assess the risk, if any, to workers or the general public.

“We will immediately inform the community if any health risks are identified,” a spokesperson said.

NuGrow has been issued with a precautionary emergency direction to immediately take action to prevent the release of asbestos in the air.

The company must also provide information about where the material has been moved off site within the past 30 days and how it may have ended up in the facility.

“Out of an abundance of caution, action has been taken to impose requirements on NuGrow to protect health, safety, and the environment,” the department said.

“This includes WHSQ prohibiting NuGrow from disturbing the contaminated stockpile, and [the Department of Environment, Science and Innovation] ordering NuGrow to take all reasonable and practical measures to prevent asbestos from being released into the air.

“Asbestos presents a very low risk when undisturbed, and when preventive measures, such as those being imposed, are taken to prevent its release.”

Two fibres of bonded asbestos were found in one of four samples collected from the Ipswich facility.

The spokesperson said the company “follows industry best practice regarding testing of our product ranges prior to approval for sale”.

“A review of in-house qualitative assurance monitoring results from samples of finished product over the last several months shows no asbestos detected.”

WHSQ has issued a prohibition notice preventing the distribution of the contaminated materials.

Waste contaminated with asbestos is not allowed to be used in the manufacture of compost or mulch in Queensland.

An investigation by Guardian Australia revealed last month that the NSW environmental regulator had known for more than a decade that producers of soil fill were failing to comply with rules to limit the spread of asbestos into the community.

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