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Arnhem Land community awaits housing rebuild three years after Cyclone Lam destruction

By Felicity James, Thursday August 9, 2018 - 06:42 EST
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Contractors discovered residual asbestos in some locations where old houses had been demolished. - ABC

More than three years after category 4 Cyclone Lam smashed into the Arnhem Land community of Galiwin'ku, some residents are still waiting for their homes to be rebuilt.



Asbestos soil contamination has delayed rebuilds by at least six months, according to Kaye Thurlow, Galiwin'ku's representative on the East Arnhem Regional Council.

"Just in the last 12 months one lot of contractors discovered there was residual asbestos lying around in some of the locations where old houses had been demolished," she said.

The ABC understands soil testing has recently been conducted at 45 property lots in Galiwin'ku, and about 50 per cent of the samples returned positive results for asbestos.

Eighty homes were destroyed and hundreds of people were displaced when Cyclone Lam hit Elcho Island in February 2015, followed by the less severe Cyclone Nathan about a month later.

There is ongoing confusion and frustration in Galiwin'ku about the timeframe for rebuilds and asbestos removal and health risks, according to local resident and Gupapuygu Birrkili clan group member David Djalangi.

Mr Djalangi said he was fed up with mixed messages from both levels of government.

"They talk over years and years, 'we can do this and that', at Garma," he said.

"They talk about closing the gap and all this bullshit. And nothing is happening.

"They have to make up their mind, the Government, if they want to look after Aboriginal people."

Mr Djalangi said he knew of three residents who had died in temporary housing, waiting to return to a home on their land in the community.

"They waited too long for the house," he said.

"In other communities, in white man's society, if a cyclone damages all the houses, they do it straight away — if they know about the asbestos, why are they doing it slowly?"

"Why? Because of the colour of our skin?"



Ms Thurlow said a few piles of what appeared to be contaminated soil or building materials covered in yellow plastic had been present in the community for "a couple of months".

"Some of the community are worried and asking me those questions. What's under that plastic? Why is it there? We don't know why it's there. Does it have the asbestos poison in it?" she said.

"Some of [the residents] are saying we'll be here in our temporary accommodation until the middle of next year at the earliest.

"They're quite frustrated with the whole process."

According to Asbestos Disease Support Society chairman Andrew Ramsay, contaminated soil should not be kept anywhere near a community.

"That should be removed, that shouldn't be lying around," he said.

"Because if kids get at it and play in it, they can be exposed quite easily by just picking it up."

Housing 'urgently needed' to keep up with Galiwin'ku growth

In May 2008, the Federal Government promised to remove all asbestos-containing material from the 73 communities subject to the Northern Territory Emergency Response, also known as the "intervention", including Galiwin'ku.

The Northern Land Council's chief executive Joe Morrison said Galiwin'ku traditional owners wrote to the Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion in April this year, asking for help with the asbestos clean-up and education for community members.

"We haven't received any response yet," Mr Morrison said.



"So that commitment obviously hasn't been fulfilled and we're hoping that they'll fulfil that commitment that they provided."

An asbestos register was compiled for Galiwin'ku in 2008, but this is now considered out-of-date and pre-dates several cyclone events and housing rebuilds that may have created asbestos debris and contaminated soil.

The Commonwealth Ombudsman responded to complaints about the asbestos survey process in 2009 and found results had not been properly communicated to Indigenous communities.

A week before Cyclone Lam hit Elcho Island in February 2015, Galiwin'ku community leaders were told by an NT Housing Department representative during one of the council's local authority meetings that the "Asbestos Removal Program for NT Housing" would be rolled out in 2016.

Local resident and Golpa clan member Helen Nyomba Gandangu said housing was urgently needed to keep up with Galiwin'ku's population growth.

"My concern and my worries are about continuing to build the houses that are demolished, because the population is growing and growing, we can't stop," Ms Gandangu said.

"That's why we need more housing."

Ms Thurlow said about 150 families in the community were on a waiting list for public housing.



"You get a person who's got a senior job in the community, whether she's a health worker or a qualified teacher and then she's living in a house with 20-odd people," she said.

"How are they getting their best rest time? How are they able to perform the next morning at work? And then all the disruption with family life that all this overcrowding and temporary moving causes."

A spokesman for the Indigenous Affairs Minister said he was aware of the concerns in Galiwin'ku but that the NT Government was responsible for managing and removing asbestos in remote communities, including after a natural disaster.

"The Australian Government has supported the NT Government with this responsibility by recently providing around $45 million over four years (2012-13 to 2015 16) for asbestos removal in remote Australia," the statement said.

Funds provided under the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements for Cyclones Lam and Nathan can also be used to remove asbestos from damaged public housing and other assets, the statement said.

NT Housing Minister Gerry McCarthy and his department have not responded to repeated requests from the ABC for comment.


- ABC

© ABC 2018

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