School classrooms contaminated with asbestos after paneling was removed without inspection


Chair Solutions, which suffered a fire in July, had asbestos in the roof, and now workers are upset after receiving a positive test for asbestos coating their work vehicles.

Class A asbestos, the type most susceptible to airborne spread, contaminated two classrooms at an unidentified school.
Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons King

Two school classrooms were found to be heavily contaminated with the most dangerous form of asbestos after wall paneling was removed without any inspection.

Emails released by the Department of Education under the Official Information Act showed someone at the unidentified school asking: “How could we miss the identification of the asbestos?”

The ministry said the case highlights the complexities it faces in helping schools with asbestos issues.

Dozens, if not hundreds, of schools are affected by asbestos or are facing disruption.

If the material is broken, ground or drilled it becomes dangerous as tiny fibers become airborne. These can lodge in the lungs and cause damage for years.

The department has spent a year compiling a national list of approved operators to keep cowboys out.

RNZ said on Friday that it was “still examining options” to help school authorities.

In the case of the unidentified school, an eight-classroom building was scheduled for renovation in 2022-23.

It was initially declared as asbestos-free.

But this statement was incorrect and when the walls were opened, two rooms, as well as heat pumps and radiators, were contaminated.

The asbestos was Class A asbestos, which is the friable type that is most susceptible to spreading through the air.

“[Someone] “Notes that air conditioners and radiators are known to emit asbestos,” one of the emails said.

“We can either assume they are contaminated, remove them and replace them with new ones, OR test them. Tests have their limitations.”

The asbestos cost at least $340,000 and caused months of delays in remediation work.

Removing all the asbestos took at least ten weeks and required work during school hours – outside of school hours – as well as double shifts during holidays.

The school management sent the ministry an email at the end of 2022 about the increasing “unwanted” pressure and stress.

“We just had a meeting with the contractors for this project and things may not be looking good for us. I am reaching out again as I believe we need to take action as quickly as possible to avoid major problems for the school in 2023,” one email said.

“We are currently awaiting further asbestos testing. However, is there a need to open walls in busy classrooms when we can almost guarantee that the design of radiators will match those of the classrooms where asbestos was originally found?”

“We are in full swing planning for 2023 and cannot move forward any further… I have to say it is getting to the point where I and our board are getting very nervous.”

The school eventually had the asbestos-containing material removed.

But many others weren't so lucky.

“There are a significant number of sites where there is currently unsafe residual asbestos following removal that requires immediate intervention action,” an internal department report from mid-2023 said.

Hobsonville Primary School has asbestos that needs to be removed as soon as possible, but some parents say it should wait until the school holidays so there are fewer children around once it blows up.

Hobsonville Primary School discovered asbestos had contaminated hundreds of tonnes of soil in 2017.
Photo: RNZ/Brad White

“The remediation was carried out by unqualified contractors in a manner that is often viewed as not compliant, best practice or safe.”

The ministry acknowledged that schools were struggling with the problem.

This has continued since at least 2016, when the government increasingly and repeatedly emphasized that it was taking action to reduce asbestos-related deaths in general and to phase out cowboy operators.

But documents released under the Official Information Act and RNZ requests showed:

  • The Department of Education does not keep a “black list” of bad moving companies
  • The extent of asbestos-related risk in all schools has not been estimated
  • The number of schools requiring an asbestos survey or asbestos management plan has not been identified
  • It has not set up national panels of consultants and relocation experts, although this has been discussed for a year.

A small part of the report setting up the committees in mid-2023 referred to examples of faulty workplaces in schools. The ministry withheld this specific information from RNZ, which asked for it again.

Since 2015, the ministry has used panels for other forms of quality control on school construction projects that, unlike asbestos, do not pose a threat to life.

Decentralization under Tomorrow's Schools puts a strain on boards of trustees, and when they carry out asbestos projects, the ministry has little control, it said.

“Schools are not required to inform the department if asbestos removal has been inadequately completed as part of school-led projects,” said property manager Sam Fowler.

The ministry “generally only recognizes bad moves” when it takes the lead.

Under the law, schools with asbestos identified or suspected, which included hundreds if not thousands of schools, would be required to have an asbestos management plan, Fowler said.

Whether they all actually did it or not was unclear.

“The decentralized model presents the department with challenges in oversight or performance management of asbestos abatement activities to which it is not legally privy,” Fowler said.

The ministry's 2023 report on the establishment of quality control boards said that to win a place, companies must adhere to strict performance criteria and demonstrate that they do their work on time.

Another criterion was compliance with health and safety protocols.

The ministry did not tell RNZ when a panel might be set up or whether there would be one or two of them.

Weaknesses in the asbestos industry appeared to be a factor preventing them from taking action. “The current numerous service providers are partially contributing to the current poor condition due to the non-compliant removal of asbestos in the past,” the report says.