As the demolition team moved onto the site of the old Mullumbimby and District Hospital on Monday (January 7) a small group of onlookers held a vigil outside the grounds.
Many had responded to a call by local documentarian David Bradbury, who said he believed that some of the buildings were being unnecessarily demolished and that Byron Shire Council had bought into the ‘scare tactic’ of asbestos.
Others were long-time supporters of the hospital, at least two of whom were on the 23-member project reference group but disagreed with its final conclusion.
Yet another was a woman whose brother was born in Mullumbimby Hospital but lost his life last year after a struggle with homelessness, alcohol and prescription drugs.
On Sunday night, Mr Bradbury posted a shout out on Facebook for community members to come and ‘pay homage to our heritage before its destroyed’.
‘[The hospital] was built on private land gifted to the community by a local family 60 years ago.
‘There is an urgent need now for accommodation for our poor elderly, women subject to domestic violence, our young suffering from mental illness and untreated drug addicts who can’t get into overloaded rehabs,’ he wrote.
Local resident Nina said she was drawn to the vigil as a way of highlighting the need for emergency housing for people with mental health problems.
‘My brother did reach out for mental health for his depression: he spent a month at the Tuckeroo unit at Byron Hospital, trying to get some respite from his depression and homelessness.
‘He thought they might be able to help with his problems but he was just released with a lot of medication.
‘I went to the vigil today because he was born in Mullum Hospital and we do need a facility to address these issues, not in five years’ time but as soon as possible. I know so many other people who have a similar story,’ Nina said.
Mr Bradbury said the current fear of asbestos was ‘like HIV was first regarded. If you are in the same room [as] an AIDS patient you would automatically catch it’.
‘Council has accepted the winning firm’s opinion, who has the $3million contract, that the only way to deal with the problem is to destroy the building brick-by-brick,’ Mr Bradbury said.
But a spokesperson for Byron Shire Council said the asbestos contamination of the Mullumbimby Hospital is ‘well known’ and ‘has been documented over many years’.
‘As part of the investigations into the future use of the old hospital site, which was purchased from NSW Health in December 2018, Council looked at the possible salvage of the buildings but three specialist building and environmental safety consultants recommended the majority of the structures posed a high risk to users,’ the spokesperson said.
‘The old hospital contains fire-retardant asbestos that was sprayed on the timber in the roof.
‘Over time the glue which holds the asbestos in place deteriorates and the asbestos becomes loose and drops into cavities which makes any renovation prohibitive.’
The Council spokesperson acknowledged that the hospital ‘has sentimental value to the community’ but added ‘the long-term health and safety of residents also needs to be considered and this is the reason the buildings are being demolished’.