Work on the Murwillumbah site for a 24-hour McDonald’s fast-food outlet and IGA supermarket development has been stopped after concerns were raised that asbestos and other contaminants were being dug up and exposed, causing a public safety hazard.
Pieces of asbestos have been seen lying on the ground on the site at Tweed Valley Way where, according to a councillor, people ride or walk past every day, and the area has not been signposted as a contaminated site.
A NSW Workcover inspector joined Tweed Shire Council officers, the landowner and developer at an onsite inspection earlier this morning after it was revealed the asbestos had been exposed and workers operating machinery also were not wearing protective clothing.
Longtime opponent of the development Cr Gary Bagnall said ‘who knows if someone has already breathed in killer asbestos fibres from the McDonald’s site?’
‘There have been no warnings to the community, no signs, no news releases that the highly contaminated site could be a danger to the community,’ said Cr Bagnall, a Murwillumbah cafe owner who decided to run for Council last year after losing a campaign to stop the McDonald’s eatery.
Council’s chief planner Vince Connell told Echonetdaily that Council almost two weeks ago had requested the site owner to stop all work after officers had identified potential health and safety risks in the management of the asbestos and contaminants.
Mr Connell said the request for the work to stop till the concerns were addressed was adhered to and today’s inspection and onsite meeting aimed to make sure appropriate health and safety measures were put in place before work could restart.
Cr Bagnall told Echonetdaily he had alerted Council two weeks ago that workmen operating excavators on the site were not wearing protective clothing on a site known to be contaminated and had asked what precautions were in place.
‘There are commercial premises on either side of the McDonald’s site with workers unaware of what’s happening there. People are walking, riding and driving past the site every day,’ he said.
‘The community need to know that the site is safe and that there are no airborne asbestos fibres floating in the wind.’
Cr Bagnall said a report last year on the site, where an old Norco butter factory and rural supplies outlet once stood, showed it was heavily contaminated with volatile chemicals and asbestos fibres ‘among other things’.
He says the development in Murwillumbah should never have been approved before completion of the contamination report, which found petroleum-based chemicals, asbestos and other toxic materials on the site.
The contamination report on the 6,500 square-metre site had suggested above-normal levels of contaminants including heavy metals, organochlorine pesticides, benzene, toluene, ethyl-benzene and xylenes (BTEX), petroleum hydrocarbons and asbestos.
Cr Bagnall said an environmental scientist for the developer’s consultant has told Council that fragments of asbestos cement had been found on the site and would continue to be found, but that a remedial strategy was to minimise disturbance and capping of the ground.
The scientist for Cavvanbah Consulting said disturbance was unavoidable, but the risk was not considered to be high enough to warrant constant use of personal protective equipment and dust masks.
But the scientist said that if the dust could not be controlled, then occupational health and safety controls would need to be ‘stepped up’, with dust suppression measures and protective gear used.
Last year Cr Bagnall told Council that the management of the site to reduce risks to workers and the wider community would be an issue in terms of dust generated, which has the potential to contain harmful asbestos fibres and would have to be closely monitored.
The $3 million development was approved early last year, despite a big community campaign against it that included many food and cafe operators in the town.
It was supported by the Murwillumbah District Business Chamber, led by Toni Zuschke, as well as by mayor Barry Longland.
Cr Longland said at the time that if any issues with contamination arose, a construction certificate would not be issued till they had been resolved.
Late last year, Council’s environmental health unit ticked off a remediation action plan (RAP) prepared by a consultant for McDonald’s, which gave the green light to construction work.
The old Norco store for years supplied farming products such as fertilisers, agricultural chemicals, stock feed, fuel and machinery products. Petroleum fuel, including petrol and diesel, was also stored at the site in underground storage tanks.
The site is owned by a local developer but the McDonald’s eatery franchise there is owned by local businessman John Davis, who also owns three other McDonald’s franchises in Tweed shire: at the BP Chinderah, Tweed City and South Tweed.