Northern Territory: Asbestos risks, housing delays ‘because of the colour of our skin?’

Piles of what is believed to be asbestos-contaminated soil lie covered with plastic around the community.

More than three years after Category 4 Cyclone Lam lashed the Galiwin’ku community on Elcho Island, residents are asking why the rebuild is taking so long.

Eighty houses in the community were destroyed in February 2015 when the cyclone hit. Thousands of Aboriginal people across the Northern Territory were displaced and, as Green Left Weekly reported at the time, it was evident that there was a lack of cyclone preparedness and support in remote areas, as well as a worrying absence of cyclone shelters.

In the aftermath of Lam, Yolngu families on Elcho Island were eventually housed in tents and other temporary shelter.

But David Djalangi, a Galiwin’ku resident and Gupapuyngu Birrkili clan member told the ABC that at least three people had died in temporary housing while waiting for new homes.

“They waited too long for the house," Djalangi said. "In other communities, in white man's society, if a cyclone damages all the houses, they do it straight away … why are they doing it slowly?

“Why? Because of the colour of our skin?"

East Arnhem Shire councillor Kaye Thurlow said asbestos soil contamination was delaying construction, as the deadly material was present in the houses destroyed by Lam. A recent audit of 45 housing lots at Galiwin’ku found that 50% tested positive for asbestos.

Mirroring the confusion and disorganisation experienced in the lead-up to and immediate aftermath of Lam, Djalangi and Thurlow said there are many unanswered questions about the process and timeframe for getting rid of the asbestos and rebuilding houses.

Piles of what they believe to be asbestos-contaminated soil lie covered with plastic around the community.

Thurlow told the ABC: "Some of the community are worried and asking me … What's under that plastic? Why is it there? We don't know why it's there. Does it have the asbestos poison in it?"

This ad-hoc approach to asbestos management is not new.

In 2008, the federal government committed to removing asbestos material from the 73 communities targeted by the NT Emergency Response legislation, or “NT Intervention” as it is commonly known. Galiwin’ku is one such community.

If the removal had happened as promised, Galiwin’ku residents would not have been faced with potential asbestos poisoning, which has only added to the distressing and disruptive effects of the cyclone.

The ABC reported that the community was advised one week before Lam hit that the “Asbestos Removal Program for NT Housing” would finally be rolled out for Galiwin’ku — in 2016.

Evidently it has still not happened.

In March last year, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union divisional branch secretary Michael Ravbar said: "Asbestos exposure in the Northern Territory has become somewhat of an epidemic”.

The union called for urgent action from the Territory Labor government to extend the Public Health and Environment Act to specifically address asbestos.

Territory Labor supported this call at its 2017 conference, but it is unclear what, if anything, has happened since then.  

In September, unions again called for immediate government action after 60 patients and 27 staff at Alice Springs Hospital were exposed to potentially deadly asbestos fibres during air conditioning works.

In May, government representatives travelled to the community of Barunga to test probable asbestos-containing materials discovered there. ABC reported at the time that there was likely an issue of “legacy dumping dating back a number of years”.

Back in Galiwin’ku, the burden of overcrowding, which was well-documented even before the town’s destruction — and is widespread throughout Aboriginal communities — is rising, as the community waits not just for destroyed houses to be replaced, but for new housing to keep up with the growing population.

Thurlow said the waiting list for public housing in the community is up to about 150 families. She pointed out that living in a house with 20 or more people had flow-on effects for those playing important community roles, trying to keep up with work while getting very little rest at home.

There appears to be mixed messages and buck-passing from the NT and federal governments when what is needed is action.

Djalangi said he was fed up with mixed messages from both levels of government. "They talk over years and years, [saying] 'we can do this and that'," he said.

"They talk about closing the gap and all this bullshit. And nothing is happening.”