Scores of Ponsonby homeowners forced out of their properties when a nearby school fire contaminated them with asbestos are still waiting to go home more than a month on from the blaze.

Act MP Simon Court, who has taken up the homeowners’ cause, said the delay was partly due to the failure by any Government body to step up and adequately co-ordinate the clean up.

But more alarmingly it had also risked exposing residents to health risks because, weeks later, asbestos was still being discovered in public areas earlier deemed low risk by health teams, he said.

That included commercial buildings and homes in a second street, previously thought to have been at little risk of contamination.

The discovery of more widespread contamination came after Ponsonby Intermediate School erupted in a “ferocious” fire on December 8.

The fire flared in the school’s roof as multiple explosions sent smoke billowing and carrying asbestos more 100m down a neighbouring street.

A day later, Auckland Regional Public Health teams advised 12 homeowners to leave their properties until they were cleaned, while telling all other residents their homes were considered low risk.

But Court said the advice and clean-up response from the Ministry of Education, Auckland Regional Public Health and Auckland Council was so bad it potentially left them open to being sued.

“I am concerned that the public health risk to the wider community has been poorly assessed and insufficient action was taken,” he said.

All three government bodies have been approached for comment.

However, Auckland Regional Public Health RPHS medical officer of health Dr David Sinclair last month said the risk to people in the neighbourhood continued to be low.

“While asbestos is known to have damaging health effects, this usually occurs after high-level exposure over long periods of time,” he said.

Straight after the fire, health officials told residents in 12 homes closest to the school, they should avoid staying there until the properties were cleaned up.

But Court questioned how health officials could know only 12 homes were affected without doing scientific testing.

A leaflet dropped in letterboxes also advised residents to bag and bin “clippings from the first lawn-mow after the fire”.

Young dad Charlie Thatham from one of the affected homes took that to mean he should mow his lawns, but was later told by an independent expert that was the worse thing he could have done.

Auckland Council also said on December 19 last year that specialist contractors were expected to begin removing asbestos debris from nine affected homes in the coming days.

“The insurance companies for the houses will be working with residents on the timetable for their return. The Ministry of Education also has insurers involved in this process,” the statement said.

“Auckland Council and ARPHS are considering the results of investigations by the insurance companies’ loss adjusters, and assessing any remaining risk. WorkSafe is also required to approve any planned remediation work.”

But the Ministry of Education had not appointed an independent consultant to oversee the clean-up operation and ensure it was co-ordinated so the risk of cross-contamination from separate clean-up operations was minimised, Court said.

Instead, it was the homeowners’ private insurance companies that had been left to co-ordinate the clean-up between, despite the fire taking place on Government property.

“If it was you or I and we owned a business and our business contaminated the neighbours’ properties, we would be working really hard to determine what the extent of it was and then going all out to ensure we minimise the risk to people,” Court said.

“But also minimise our liability.”

The Ministry’s actions combined with Auckland Regional Public Health’s health advice could leave the government exposed, Court said.

“If we’d given that advice to employees as a business owner we’d be liable to prosecution,” he said.

“What the public health service recommended is unsafe and doesn’t meet the minimum standards that Worksafe would apply.”

Resident Jane Sundstrum, meanwhile, still faces weeks before she can get back into her home.

Due to the insurance companies expanding the search for asbestos contamination in other properties, the clean-up operation on her badly affected home had been delayed.

That meant assessors were still deciding which parts of her home needed replacing, including potentially the carpets and furnishings.

But with supply chains backlogged as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, replacement furnishings could take even longer to be brought in.

“We don’t know how long it will take,” she said.

“It is one thing to pull everything up, it is another to make it habitable again.”

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