Port Kembla Copper Stack demolition provides insight into asbestos testing process
On February 20, the Port Kembla Copper Stack was reduced to a pile of rubble.
Port Kembla Copper (PKC) submitted an application to the New South Wales Government’s Department of Planning and Infrastructure to have the Stack demolished in 2008 – an application that was approved in December last year.
As a result, this iconic feature of the Port Kembla skyline came tumbling down at 11.10 a.m on Thursday, using a controlled explosion.
PKC built the Stack in 1965 and, at 198 metres tall, it was one of the tallest chimneys in the world. According to news.com.au, both the New South Wales Police and a number of Emergency Service volunteers were present when the Stack was brought down, as were thousands of people from all over the state.
A helicopter was used to “help with the delicate operation” and a 300-metre “exclusion zone” was set up around the site to keep the crowd safe.
However, such precautions were not deemed adequate by many Port Kembla residents, who feared the Stack was contaminated by asbestos.
Ian Wilson, general manager of PKC, did his best to quash such claims, informing ABC News before the Stack was demolished that no part of structure remained “undisclosed, unexplored [or] uncharacterised”.
“PKC has done everything it can to demonstrate to everyone’s satisfaction that the Stack does not contain any residual asbestos hazard,” he announced on February 20.
Nevertheless, a number of Port Kembla residents, such as Julie Renshaw, remained unconvinced. Ms Renshaw told news.com.au the Stack was so tall that many of its levels could not possibly be accessible, which means there is no proof they didn’t contain asbestos at the time of demolition.
Her biggest fears were for a pre-school located across the road from the site.
“Our concern is, worse case scenario, one of these children does develop a respiratory illness, [and] there is no support for them at all,” she revealed to news.com.au.
It was not only PKC that conducted testing for asbestos in the Stack, however. WorkCover New South Wales and the Environmental Protection Agency also carried out their own testing to make absolutely sure the structure was asbestos-free. The two organisations released a joint media statement on February 7 stating “there is no asbestos present in the Stack”.
So, what started these rumours in the first place?
Well, according to the New South Wales Government’s Department of Planning and Infrastructure, asbestos was present in the Port Kembla Copper Stack when PKC conducted its initial assessment in 2011. Apparently it had been used in sealing materials throughout the Stack, but these were safely removed between April and August 2013.
The assessment process
On February 10, the New South Wales Government’s Department of Planning and Infrastructure issued a media release that detailed what kinds of testing had been conducted on the Port Kembla Copper Stack.
This provides some useful insight into the assessment process used to determine whether a structure is contaminated by asbestos or not, and should be of some interest to those wanting a career in asbestos removal.
In May 2011, two companies were hired to undertake inspections of the Stack. This is when it was discovered that several gaskets in the structure contained asbestos. These were removed along with their surrounding bricks by qualified asbestos removal workers two years later over a five-month period.
Once the removal was completed in August 2013, Airsafe – a business that provides on-site air-testing – was called in to test samples from both inside the Stack and outside its concrete shell, as well as its bricks. This airborne fibre monitoring was conducted using the membrane filter method.
This method of testing for asbestos basically involves drawing a particular quantity of air via a sampling pump through a membrane filter.
“The filter is later transformed from an opaque membrane into a transparent, optically homogeneous specimen,” according to Safe Work Australia. This allows whoever is conducting the testing to see what respirable fibres are present in the sample, and determine whether the air is contaminated by asbestos or other harmful airborne contaminants.
The New South Wales Government’s Department of Planning and Infrastructure states the membrane filter method was developed “to provide a consistent methodology for the sampling and analysis of airborne asbestos fibres in workplaces”.
Airsafe’s airborne fibre monitoring didn’t find any evidence of asbestos, so – after the Stack was inspected “from top to bottom” – PKC was granted an Asbestos Visual Clearance Certificate. This is a document written by a “licensed asbestos assessor or competent person” who conducts a final clearance inspection of a site once qualified asbestos removal workers have gotten rid of all contaminated materials.
According to the Queensland Government, an Asbestos Visual Clearance Certificate can only be issued if and when it’s been determined the area and its surrounds are “free from visible asbestos contamination” and air fibre monitoring has show the asbestos fibre concentration in the air is below 0.01 fibres per millilitre.
WorkCover New South Wales arrived on site a month later (September 2013) to collect samples from levels one through three of the Stack, which also came out clean.
Finally, the Environmental Protection Agency took its own concrete, brick and mortar samples in October 2013, which again came up negative.
As an extra precaution, a number of inspectors were present on the day of the Port Kembla Copper Stack’s demolition, to check for “safety and contamination” before the barriers surrounding the 300-metre exclusion zone were removed.
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