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December 5, 2022

Toluene found at Mullumbimby’s old hospital site

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The NSW Government gifted the Byron Shire Council the opportunity to buy back the Mullumbimby Hospital site. Photo Aslan Shand

Yet another contamination concern has been uncovered at the site of the old Mullum Hospital, adding an extra $1.5 million to the already ballooning cost of remediating the land.

The agenda for this week’s Byron Shire Council meeting reveals that, following the removal of the asbestos-riddled buildings on the site, the potentially hazardous substance toluene was found.

A derivative of benzene, toluene is a colourless, water-soluble hydrocarbon.

Exposure to the substance has a number of health impacts, ranging from eye and nose irritation, to liver and kidney damage in cases of extended, high-level exposure.

The discovery is set to add significantly to both the cost and time required to prepare the site for community use following the State Government’s decision to gift it to the community in 2017.

With this latest financial hit, that ‘gift’ has now cost the community in excess of $5m, the vast majority of which has been spent on site remediation.

This is before a single cent has been spent on building anything on the site.

Further investigation and remediation

The discovery of toluene means significant additional investigation and remediation work will be required, according to the staff report on the issue.

This includes capping a significant area of the property, primarily where the former hospital buildings were located.

‘The Remediation Action Plan also requires the removal of trees within the capped area, which must be done in a prescribed way to ensure containment of asbestos contamination,’ Council’s manager of assets and major projects, Phil Warner, said in the staff report on the issue.

The cost and time required to complete this remediation is heavily dependent on the direction of the registered auditor contracted by Council to independently monitor the remediation work.

‘Council cannot control the level of work or timeframes required by the auditor to complete requirements,’ Mr Warner said.

Council has twice discovered that asbestos levels were higher than initially thought, leading to a seemingly ever-expanding process of investigation and remediation.


Council has already borrowed $3.33 million to pay for this work, with total interest payments for that loan set to be $124,000.

It is predicted that remediating the toluene contamination will cost an additional $1.15 million. However, staff have recommended borrowing $1.5 million for the work ‘in case there are any other unforeseen costs’.

‘The understanding is that outcomes on the former Mullumbimby Hospital site will generate sufficient return to Council to recover all of the costs Council has invested,’ Mr Warner said.

‘The proposed time frame for finalisation of the remediation works will then give nearly two years to Council to generate that return, to recover its costs, before the loans have to be fully repaid’. 

He added interest rates for loan borrowings are still very favourable.

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  1. ‘Free lunches’ (or free anything else) come at a cost! Whoever on Council pushed for acquisition of the site had a deficit of foresight (not that that’s new with BSC).


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