How Sydney turned into ‘danger zone’ during Taylor Swift visit as asbestos crisis transforms the city

The global pop culture phenomenon of Taylor Swift is lighting up Sydney this weekend but parts of Australia’s global city look less than stellar for the Tay Tay fiesta.

Multiple parks and sites are fenced off as the city’s asbestos crisis rolls on and it isn’t yet clear how far the crisis will spread.

The story broke in January after asbestos – a carcinogenic substance – was detected at the Rozelle Parklands.

In the the middle of February the crisis had spiralled with positive results found in three parks in the heart of Sydney: Harmony Park in Surry Hills, Victoria Park near the University of Sydney and Belmore Park near Central Station.

High-risk friable asbestos, which is easily crushed into a powder, was discovered at Harmony Park while low-risk bonded asbestos was found at Victoria Park and Belmore Park.

‘Crime scene’ photos

Victoria Park next to the University of Sydney is a wide green space that tilts gently down from the university campus to Broadway.

The leafy park is a haven for students to relax and picnic together, or stroll into the city from classes.

It also houses a lake, beautiful flower beds and the Victoria Park swimming pool.

But in mid February, the green space was fenced off with orange tape marking it out as an asbestos positive site.

In one photo, a runner jogs through the park past ground marked off with wide orange netting and a sign that reads: “Danger Asbestos”.

In another, a positive strip of ground is marked off with red-and-white tape.

The Rozelle Parklands has become a zone of steel fences and council utility trucks after asbestos was found there. The park remains closed to the public.

Sydney’s schools have also been affected, with Allambie Heights Public School, Domremy College, Liverpool West Public School, Penrith Christian School and St Luke’s Catholic College all detecting asbestos in their grounds.

What happened?

The NSW Environmental Protection Authority notified the City of Sydney council that its suppliers may have received mulch contaminated with asbestos.

“Based on this advice, we immediately began testing five parks: Victoria Park at Broadway, Belmore Park near Central Station, Harmony Park and Prince Alfred Park in Surry Hills and Pope Paul VI Reserve in Glebe,” the council said.

Since then, the EPA has confirmed 54 sites across the vast spread of Sydney has returned positive results for asbestos as of February 22, including friable asbestos at Bicentennial Park 1 in Glebe.

Other positive sites include Jubilee Park in Glebe, Regatta Park in Emu Plains in Sydney’s west, Campbelltown Hospital, Observatory Hill Park at Millers Point, which is home to the popular Sydney observatory, and the NSW Fire and Rescue Station at Oran Park in the city’s outer southeast.

“One of the new sites is a garden bed, along the Rozelle Interchange, located between Callan St and Springside St at the Iron Cove Bridge,” the EPA said.

“It has tested positive to friable asbestos. Transport for NSW has fenced off the site. Removal of mulch in the area has begun and is expected to take several nights.”

If asbestos is mixed with cement or other hard bonding materials, and in good condition, it is likely to be low risk to human health, the EPA states.

If it can be crumbled, pulverised or reduced to a powder by hand pressure, is it defined as “friable”.

If asbestos fibres then become airborne and are breathed in, they can be a health risk.

This is the most common way asbestos enters the body.

The more fibres that are breathed in, the higher the risk.

At all locations except for two, the type of asbestos is non-friable or bonded asbestos, the EPA said.


Aside from the aesthetic hit to Sydney’s world-renowned beauty, the crisis has knocked out summer plans and caused disruptions to daily life across the city

City of Sydney Mayor Clover Moore cancelled Victoria Park’s annual Mardi Gras Fair Day, which usually attracts around 70,000 people, because of the park’s asbestos mulch.

A worker at an Emu Plains cafe noticed a decline of foot traffic after the nearby Regatta Park was temporarily fenced off, but business had since come back.

“A lot more business coming in, a lot more walkers coming in,” she said.

“It wasn’t sound anywhere near us.

“A few customers did ask, ‘why is it shut’? And we told them it was asbestos.”

But a NSW government spokesman said the crisis was unlikely to affect how international visitors viewed the city, given the fenced off park and sites are still relatively small and rare across the giant city.

“Construction and public works are carried out across Sydney every day, as they are in every city across the globe,” the spokesman told NCA NewsWire.

“In most cases, the areas of parks and sites being fenced off are relatively small and unlikely to impact visitors to our city.

“The NSW Government is working rapidly but thoroughly through the list of sites under investigation.

“Sites will not be fenced for a moment longer than required and will be reopened as soon as it is confirmed safe to do so.

“The number one priority for the NSW government since the initial discovery has been community safety,” the spokesman added.

“The government has moved quickly to support the NSW Environment Protection Authority as they undertake one of their biggest investigations in decades.”

How does this end?

The EPA is working furiously to test how far the mulch contamination might have spread.

The state government has established an Asbestos Taskforce to co-ordinate its response and prioritise sites considered high-risk to the public.

“This increase in resources will ensure affected sites are secured and remediated,” the EPA states.

“We know the closure of the public areas is frustrating for the community and we’re working as quickly as possible to understand the extent of the contamination.

“We are working with councils, landowners, contractors and other agencies to ensure the sites are remediated and safe so they can be reopened to the public.”

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