The two main buildings at the Mullumbimby Hospital site will have to be completely demolished and the land remediated at a cost of more than $3 million after they were found to be riddled with asbestos that poses a high risk to future users and the surrounding community.
In a turn of events that could complicate Byron Council’s plan to purchase the 13-acre site from the state government, a new contamination report has found that asbestos containment measures on the site are failing, leaving demolition the only viable option.
The report, by HBI Australia, states that there is ‘unstable and degraded asbestos-containing material in all of the roof system/ceiling spaces at the facility’ except in the smaller, semi-detached birthing unit (Block B).
The degradation of this material was ‘extremely advanced’ and hazardous, the report said.
When coupled with the ‘deteriorating roof structure’, this presented ‘a very high risk to users and occupiers of the facility as well as the surrounding community’.
Exacerbating the risk, HBI found that measures put in place by NSW Health to contain the asbestos within ceilings and walls were only designed to last until 2016.
Those measures are now failing.
In addition, the soil beneath Block A is contaminated and that beneath Block C may also be tainted, meaning extensive remediation of the site will be needed before it is habitable.
HBI estimated that the costs of removal and remediation would exceed $3 million, significantly more than the $1.8 million previously quoted to NSW Health.
Gill Lomath, a member of the Mullumbimby Hospital Site Project Reference Group, said she had been ‘stunned’ to learn the full extent of contamination and the likely cost of removal and remediation.
‘If what they’re saying is fact, it’s a pretty serious issue,’ said Ms Lomath, who is also a member of the Mullumbimby Hospital Action Group (MHAG).
‘It’s a very expensive process. The question is where do we get that money from and how will it encroach on other community projects being undertaken by Council?’
‘I just hope that it can be worked out in a way that allows the site to be used for the community.’
As more is learned about the amount and cost of work required on the site, using part of the property for commercial purposes may become a more attractive prospect for Byron Council.
The HBI report said that if the council went through with its plan to purchase the site, the operational costs were ‘unlikely to be offset by income for an as-yet unknown period of time’.
Greens councillor Jeanette Martin, who is also a member of the project reference group, said it was too soon to talk about commercial partnerships.
She said the council had commissioned a further report to more accurately determine the cost.
‘The first step is to find out how much it’s going to cost with the underlying understanding that this site is going to be for the community,’ Cr Martin said.
‘Maybe it’s [the cost] going to be completely out of control and maybe we won’t go ahead with buying the site. It’s very unlikely, but we need to keep that in mind.’
The state government offered to sell the site to the council for $1 in May following a long-running campaign to keep it in community hands.
Under the proposed deal, the council would undertake all works required to make the site safe and habitable.
A number of options for future use of the site remain on the table, including a retirement village, a women’s refuge, social housing, and an innovation hub.
‘It’s a question of what we can do and what will fit,’ Cr Martin said.
‘With 13 acres there is the option to do more than one thing. There’s so much need in our community and people are saying ‘here’s a great opportunity to meet some of that need’.