By Lanie Tindale
“When the fire happened we escaped with our children, our lives, and our pyjamas. That’s it.
“We are now in the 9th week of crisis accommodation and holding it all together as a family.
We’re tired, we’re emotionally and physically exhausted. This horrible time has been exponentially worsened by the fact that we’ve had to actively advocate for every bit of information from Council.”
These were the opening words from Nipu Jayatilleke’s speech to the Inner West Council on Tuesday.
Ms Jayatilleke and her husband Linden Thorley live at 103 Australia Street Camperdown, the property neighbouring 101 Australia Street. 101 Australia Street went up in flames on Sunday the 17th of June.
“We’re appalled at the effort we must take for Council to take us seriously when we raise concerns about safety. This includes when we found loose asbestos in the public domain weeks after the Council clean up,” said Ms Jayatilleke.
Residents were evacuated from the site because of asbestos in the roof of the factory which caught fire. 55 firefighters and 12 fire trucks responded to the fire.
There was a clean-up by council of the site, but asbestos debris was found by Mr Thorley and an asbestos hygienist on the 19th of July.
Inner West Greens Councillor Louise Steer presented a motion to the Council to “Ensure that the owner of 101 Australia Street Camperdown remove the asbestos from its site” within 7 days.
Deputy General Manager of Assets and Environment Elizabeth Richardson addressed the criticisms levelled at Council by residents.
Ms Richardson said that the site was given to the Council under its local emergency management function.
“Immediately [we closed the roads and begun] the extensive clean-up operations on a great number of dwellings,” she said, explaining there had been a delay because of negotiation between the owner of 101 Australia Street and Council.
Ms Richardson said that Council staff “were actively, frankly pressuring the owner … and we were satisfied at the time that progress was being made towards a resolution on this issue. There was obviously a situation with the owner’s insurance company.”
She said that when the asbestos debris was found by Mr Thorley, “the situation escalated”, and that up until that point Council staff had believed the site to be safe.
Ms Robertson insisted Council “Went well above and beyond our initial responsibilities in cleaning up another of other properties. And then in the regulatory arm we have undertaken everything that we have needed to do… in order to make that site safe.”
“[The residents’ concern is about] the delay. And with respect to communication that was provided to them and that’s not necessarily a failure of the regulatory approach.”
“I’m comfortable certainly with the approach that we’ve taken,” she said.
Another resident of Australia Street said he relied on the Council website to understand what was happening but when communication stopped he was in the dark.
“I expected when I returned after a month away things would be back to normal. Wrong.
“As a ratepayer, the owner of 101 Australia Street deserves no less consideration than other ratepayers, but Council’s protracted inaction suggests that [their] interests were a higher priority than other residents and remain such,” he said.
The resident claimed families were still displaced from their homes and that the small business at 99 Australia Street had been forced to temporarily close and was still hampered by the road and footpath closure.
The owner of 105 Australia Street expressed concern for his tenants, who have lived in the property since 2013.
“My tenants not knowing from week to week where they are going to stay, living out of suitcases, trying to keep job commitments and relationships together is no mean feat.”
He said he wants an independent body to oversee the asbestos clean-up.
Inner West Council published an update on its website on Tuesday at 12.30pm. It said that “debris removal works [are] continuing as expected [and] internal propping [of the wall next to 103 Australia Street is] expected to commence tomorrow.”
On the 27th of July, the Inner West Council published a press release saying:
“Following a fire at 101 Australia Street, Newtown, on June 17, Inner West Council sent in specialist contractors and asbestos assessor to decontaminate and remove toxic material from the building and surrounding streets.”
Inner West Council Mayor Darcy Byrne said Council had gone above and beyond its responsibilities to assist with the clean-up.
“Immediately after the fire, Council sent in a team to secure the site and spray it with an adhesive by a licenced asbestos contractor to ensure public safety,” he said.
“Since then, Council has regularly liaised with the property owner, who gave regular assurances that work was about to begin on the investigation and clean-up of the site…yet the owner and GIO continued to drag their feet and this work only started on Thursday [25 July].”
Cr Byrne said Council had already spent more than $500,000 cleaning streets and homes around the property and had recently installed additional safety measures, including new air monitoring and sprinkler systems to ensure any debris is properly contained.