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Clover Moore attacks NSW government and EPA over ‘regulatory failure’ before asbestos crisis

<span>‘As well as burgeoning costs, our residents have been barred from accessing their parks and open spaces,’ Sydney lord mayor Clover Moore says.</span><span>Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP</span>
‘As well as burgeoning costs, our residents have been barred from accessing their parks and open spaces,’ Sydney lord mayor Clover Moore says.Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP

Sydney’s lord mayor, Clover Moore, has accused the New South Wales government and the state’s environment watchdog of a “massive” and “costly” regulatory failure over the ongoing asbestos contamination crisis.

City of Sydney councillors gathered at an extraordinary general meeting on Monday to discuss how contaminated mulch came to be used across numerous city parks. Moore revealed testing alone had already cost the council more than $200,000.

Asbestos has so far been found in mulch in more than a dozen City of Sydney parks, including friable asbestos at several sites. The NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) has found asbestos-contaminated mulch at more than 60 sites across greater Sydney.

Related: Ex-senior watchdog staffer says NSW asbestos crisis ‘destined to happen’ after decade of regulatory failure

The chair of the state government’s asbestos taskforce, Carolyn Walsh, told the council meeting the EPA had been able to trace more than 90% of the contaminated mulch supplied by the company Greenlife Resource Recovery.

Walsh said the remaining proportion was “very difficult to trace” and she expected the EPA would provide advice for households concerned they may have received contaminated mulch.

The EPA has previously said it was “following up on a possible second supplier” that could have provided asbestos-contaminated mulch.

Moore told Monday’s meeting the contamination was caused by a “massive failure of state-based regulatory system” and more than $200,000 had been spent on testing. That did not cover the cost of remediation and replacing the product.

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“The extent of the contamination problem indicates that … the community has been badly let down by the regulatory process that governs the safety of recycled mulch,” she said.

“Costs of testing, disposal and remedial work are having and will have a substantial impact on our ratepayers, as is the fencing off and the loss of recreational space for our residents.”

Moore told the council it was “shocking” the widespread issue was “only discovered when a child took home a piece of asbestos-contaminated mulch” from the Rozelle parklands in January.

“As well as burgeoning costs, our residents have been barred from accessing their parks and open spaces which are contaminated,” she said. “It’s a costly mess.”

Asbestos was found in mulch at Rozelle in early January but it took a month before the City of Sydney council was told by the EPA that its suppliers may have received contaminated product.

The council then began testing and asbestos was found in mulch at its parks.

Asked why the council was not aware that Greenlife was part of its supply chain before the EPA contacted them, the council’s chief executive, Monica Barone, insisted the council had done the right thing.

“This is now the subject of criminal investigation,” she said.

“The investigation is under way. We’ll see what the EPA does. But essentially, we did the right thing. We sought assurance, we got assurance.”

Barone agreed there was a “bit of a backlog” with regards to testing mulch, with about 13 results being returned to the city each week.

Moore called on the NSW government to release a report by the state’s chief scientist examining asbestos in recycled products.

That review, however, relates to one type of recycled product only – recovered fines, which is a soil fill product derived from construction and demolition waste including skip bin residue.

Guardian Australia revealed in January the EPA had known for more than a decade that producers of recovered fines were failing to comply with rules to limit the spread of contaminants such as lead and asbestos into the community.

In response to Moore’s comments the EPA chief executive, Tony Chappel, said the state had a “zero tolerance for asbestos”.

“The discovery of contaminated mulch at sites across Sydney is alarming and the EPA is undertaking a major criminal investigation to work out how this has occurred,” he said.

“We have a strong framework to prohibit this material and as with any criminal investigation, where anyone has flouted the law or their obligations, we will not hesitate to use our regulatory powers.”

Comment was sought from the NSW government.