Sydney’s Villawood detention centre contains asbestos years after the federal government claims it was managed, according to a whistle-blower working at the site.

A guard hired by MSS Security, the firm contracted by British multinational Serco to manage security at Villawood, told Crikey about the lack of information given to staff and refugees about the problem.

Greg (not his real name) was alarmed to see signs around Villawood, which read “Danger: Asbestos” — he told Crikey that none of the MSS staff were informed about the situation.

His fears were increased when he discovered that in 2001 and 2006 the Immigration Department had confirmed the presence of asbestos and both times claimed the problem was resolved.

“It doesn’t make one feel good that it was cleared once, then cleared again,” Greg said. “Then you discover that ‘declared safe’ means it hasn’t been removed but covered up by a chemical. When you start digging it up, they’re microscopic fibres that will be released into the air. Infected areas could have infected guards and refugees. We can’t seem to find a definitive authority. One of the posts where I work, I only have to walk around 10 metres and there’s a sign that says ‘Danger: Asbestos’. It goes nearly all the way up to the road level and around the minimum security section.”

Greg said that he has photos of authorities coming into Villawood to test the site twice for asbestos in the past eight months. “Serco and MSS must know about it. A company came to investigate the areas they’ll be digging up for renovations. Maximum security is moving 100 metres closer to minimum security.”

The Immigration Department responded with two separate statements over different days.

“The Villawood redevelopment project is being delivered jointly by the Department of Finance and Deregulation and The Immigration Department. The department has engaged an accredited and independent environmental company, JBS Environmental, to supervise remediation of the soil on the site. JBS was contracted to assess the levels of contamination at Villawood site and to recommend the most effective remediation. Staff, visitors and clients were given information about the testing process before it commenced.”

Three MSS Security staff at Villawood told Crikey that no warnings about asbestos were given. Several regular visitors reiterated those claims.  Asylum seekers housed on the site also told Crikey they have not been told of the potential risks.

The second statement from the Immigration Department added more details to the original comment:

“In 2002 asbestos particles in the soil were found after demolition work in areas adjacent to the operational path of Villawood detention centre. At the time, in accordance with standards, these areas were capped with soil and sent to prevent access to the area. In 2006 a test of the area revealed some low-level surface contamination. Further detail investigations were undertaken by an accredited asbestos testing company. Compliant with safety standards, all contaminated areas were capped with compacted gravel.”

Greg at MSS Security told Crikey that the  re-assurances rang hollow given that the signs warning of the dangers of asbestos remained around the site. The immigration department reiterated:

“Extensive monitoring over a number of years has consistently found contaminants are well below the accepted levels for asbestos set out under the NSW occupational health and safety act 2000. The redevelopment of Villawood detention facility requires further remediation to ensure the redeveloped site is suitable for a combination of residential, commercial and open space for recreational uses.”

This statement from the Immigration Department in April 2006 claimed the risk was “low” from asbestos at Villawood and, “we are very pleased with the swift progress made in mitigating the site, and we are continuing to monitor the situation carefully.”

Another statement from August 2006 states that the government was “aware of the presence of asbestos in the remnant footings from previous buildings since their discovery in May 2002 and an agreed mitigation strategy was implemented in full compliance with all relevant environmental and occupational health and safety regulations.”

Serco told Crikey that the “DIAC [Department of Immigration and Citizenship] continues to conduct asbestos remediation at the site”.

*Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist who is currently working on a book about disaster capitalism and privatisation.

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