The government is accused of turning a blind eye to the safe removal of asbestos pipes in the country’s multi-million dollar water project.
Infrastructure Cook Islands and McConnell Dowell were removing the pipes as part of Te Mato Vai. John Makuru, a specialist in asbestos removal, said he warned that with the high risk A Class asbestos found in the old pipes, the removal workers needed expert supervision to stay safe from asbestosis mesothelioma and lung cancer.
Infrastructure secretary Diane Charlie-Puna rejected that: she said workers were properly trained and provided with additional safety equipment after concerns were raised with her.
They were also paid a dangerous work allowance, she said.
Makuru’s company Asbestos Assessors NZ ran a workshop here last year, training people to remove the asbestos pipes.
Makuru said he assumed the pipes would have only 15 per cent concentration of asbestos.
But during the training process, he discovered the pipes were A class asbestos with “100 per cent asbestos in it”.
“That’s probably the most dangerous type of asbestos when it becomes airborne so we warned the government of things like asbestosis mesothelioma, lung cancer, and said that our training didn’t provide for working with A class asbestos,” Makuru said. “Our training was based around a moderate asbestos content and product.
“The health and safety equipment they were using was designed around removing a lower grade of asbestos.”
Makuru said they advised that the removal work needed to be supervised.
McConnell Dowell accordingly hired a specialist company to do the pipe removal work up the valley for them – but Infrastructure Cook Islands went ahead with its own staff. “So what ends up happening is all the asbestos from the pipe ends up going on to the land, drawing out and becoming fibrous and airborne,” Makuru said.
Charlie-Puna said Makuru wanted them to hire him on a contract basis to oversee the water staff for the asbestos work; a claim that Makuru rejected.
Charlie-Puna said they put their staff through theory and practical training in the proper handling of asbestos. “We made it the onus of the director of Water Waste and Sanitation at the time (Jaime Short) together with her manager for Water Works to oversee and ensure proper measures are in place and staff are complying with the safety measures,” she said.
“Our removal of asbestos pipes was minimal and not as much as what Te Mato Vai was dealing with.”