7th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Environmental Health Conference Kalgoorlie, WA

Dealing with Asbestos - Bagot Indigenous Community Clinic

Page last updated: December 2010

Barbara Klessa & Christopher Blow, Northern Territory Department of Health and Families

Christopher: I really appreciate the opportunity to be able to speak here today. And I acknowledge the traditional owners for letting us get up and talk about environmental health conditions and issues in our communities. I originally came from Queensland and I’ve travelled all around Queensland but now I live in the Northern Territory where I have been living for 12 years. I live with a desert woman and I see a lot of her family and other Aboriginal people living in terrible, unhealthy conditions and that really concerned me so that’s the reason I got into environmental health. Maybe through me and through other Indigenous people practicing environmental health and working with main stream EHOs we can help alleviate some of the health issues associated with Indigenous people.

I’m a student at Batchelor Institute, studying to get my degree in environmental health and I also work for the NT Government with the Department of Health and Families in the Environmental Health Section. I am very grateful for this position and it was made possible for me though the National Indigenous Cadetship Program and Environmental Health Darwin. So am still only learning all facets of environmental health which there are so many so I am not any kind of expert yet so today I am just going to try and get a message across to you though this presentation about one of many environmental health issues that you come across in the urban Indigenous town camps around Darwin. Any way more Indigenous EHWs and EHOs are important for better health in this changing environment.

Asbestos and Indigenous Communities

The majority of the old NT Indigenous communities that exist are former church missions, old and obsolete. Some of these buildings are still being used but most are derelict and prone to vandalism and destruction by severe weather conditions such as cyclones and thunder storms. Also structural damage from termites. This poses a public health risk where people could be unknowingly be exposed to asbestos fibres. People who live near these buildings or children who play in them are especially at risk to being exposed. There are also a lot of homeless people in Darwin who have come into town from communities for various reasons and they congregate in a lot of these old buildings. One of these particular buildings was the old Bagot clinic and hospital and Bagot Aboriginal reserve in Darwin. So I am mostly going to talk about this building and how it became an environmental health problem as well as a social problem for the people that call Bagot home.

Firstly we need to look at the history of the Bagot community to get an idea of what Darwin, NT and Australia was like for Indigenous people of the era. The traditional owners of Darwin are the Larrakia people and respect goes to them in the context of this presentation. The early 1900s was when Darwin was expanding as a frontier town and there were many different races of people there. As one historian quoted the 1930s the number of Aborigines residing in Darwin steadily increased there was public pressure to get them and mixed race children out of town. So this is when a reserve of land 6.5 km out of Darwin town was proclaimed as the Bagot compound for Aborigines. On this compound, a model village for Aborigines, a medical clinic with two large wards and an administration office was constructed. This is the old Bagot Hospital. Around the same time World War II was encroaching on Northern Australia and as the army for desperate for hospital space an order was given to clear Bagot compound of Aborigines. These people were sent back to their traditional countries or moved across Darwin harbour to a new settlement. The Bagot hospital had 258 patients during the war. After the war Bagot was returned for Aboriginal peoples use and the hospital and clinic was again operated by Government Agencies.

After many years use louvered glass bays for cross ventilation and light and the roof was lined with corrugated asbestos tiles and asbestos ridged vents to the main beams. Now only the concrete walls and floor stand.

So over the years this building was just sitting it got neglected and vandalised and the extreme weather conditions of Northern Australia really damaged the building and it slowly deteriorated. Then on the 4th May 2007 the Community Development Officer for the Bagot Community wrote to the Minister for Health requesting funding to assist in the removal of the asbestos from the old building because he was a concerned about the broken asbestos lying around.

Environmental health was contacted and a public health assessment was done and this assessment advised that all broken and loose asbestos sheeting be removed to prevent risk to public health. The health risk where asbestos fibres could be blown around by strong winds or people. Environmental Health Darwin then wrote a letter to the Bagot Community requesting that the Bagot Council as a matter of priority should clean up the asbestos. Two months later Environmental Health again spoke to the Community Development Officer and requested that a robust cyclone fence and signs warning about asbestos be erected around the site. By November 2007 a fence had been erected and the Development Officer advised that the fence was working and there was an increase awareness within the community about the dangers of the building. This action was a short term measure to minimise the health risks but the asbestos was still on site.

There was a lot of further meetings between the Bagot Community and various government departments trying to work out a final solution as the problem could only get worse with the more cyclones and with the building just deteriorating more.

But this building had significant historical value to the people of Bagot and the Community Council wanted to preserve as much of the building as possible for future use. This was when we at Environmental Health could issue a formal public health notice to the community council to remove the health risks within a specified time frame or the other option was for the Bagot Community Council and government departments to work together finding a viable solution.

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We at Environmental Health are in a precarious position with regards to dealing with these types of asbestos issues as there is no distinct policy on resolutions. Plus there is a considerable overlap with roles of other agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Worksafe NT, Indigenous Housing Organisation and the Darwin City Council all of these organisations acknowledge that asbestos issues have ministerial implications. So the Bagot Community Council wrote to the Health Minister to help them clean up the asbestos and they had a lot of meetings with various Government Departments. After the meetings the Minister engaged an independent engineer to determine what was best for the building. The engineering company reports stated that the building was so badly vandalised and neglected that the only practical solution was total demolition.

The Minister urged the Bagot Community Council to fully demolish the building and offered them the funds to have the building demolished; they just wanted the asbestos problems removed. The Bagot Community Council decided to pursue other options as they wanted to retain as much of the building as possible for its cultural and historical value. The Health Minister put a lot of pressure on the community to accept the offer or the money would be withdrawn. He also tried to play the guilty conscience card on the community by saying that your letter indicates that the Bagot Community Council now accepts all liability associated with this building and the potential health threats it poses. He also goes on to say “I once again urge you to consider the potential health risks you may be exposing the Bagot Community to through your ongoing indecisions” so once again we have Health Minister who lay the blame onto the Indigenous communities for their government’s inactions in providing the appropriate service for people’s safety on our communities.

This building would have been sitting and deteriorating for many more years if it wasn’t for the concern shown by the community and the Development Officer. I don’t think the Minister for Health was concerned about asbestos and the people of Bagot. Prior to all this happening the community had already signed a shared responsibility agreement with the Federal Government in August 2005 and this agreement was finally implemented with the help of the local government in Darwin and it was used to resolve the issue.

The buildings foundations were preserved, and all of the asbestos has been removed.

So I believe that if environmental health is made to be more of a priority on all of our communities and more Indigenous EHOs are trained to liaise much better with the government service providers then and communities that they represent then these serious health risks can be spotted earlier and rectified.

The Indigenous community councils that have been underfunded neglected and mismanaged won’t then be the ones to blame for the many high levels of government’s failure to deliver equity in all areas of health services to Aboriginal people.

So it is now known that asbestos is a serious health risk on a lot of Indigenous communities and we as environmental health Practitioners have a commitment to prevent these health risks. Education and awareness needs to be provided to the many communities that come across asbestos and for the communities they work with. They are confident and have strong negotiating skills. The unnecessary government bullying and bickering could be avoided with well informed Indigenous EHOs who know how to communicate and liaise between all parties. So it is important that we train more reliable hardworking Indigenous EHWs and EHOs on our communities. We can then monitor asbestos and other environmental health problems and work with the mainstream EHOs who are trying to get around these problems to find more solutions. We can then educate our communities about this asbestos problem and other very important environmental health issues. Our knowledge and awareness could create harmony between divisions and a healthier safer environment for our people in communities. Thus creating better health outcomes in a changing environment. Thank you.

Q. You have those photos about it being safe and ready for the future. Does the Bagot Community have anything planned for what they want to do with that site now?

A. They want to make a cultural centre. There is also an historian that has become interested in it he works as Charles Darwin University and they have been doing some work there because it was also the first Darwin hospital. So there has been quite a lot of taking about the future.

For more information

Barbara Klessa
Manager Environmental Health Darwin Urban Northern Territory Department of Health and Families PO Box 40596, Casuarina, NY 0811
Ph: 08 89227363 Email: barbara.klessa@nt.gov.au