Ponsonby homeowners still waiting for answers 11 days after being forced out of their homes by asbestos billowing from a school fire are suffering anxiety attacks and delays getting back to their jobs.

Now Green MP Chloe Swarbrick and Act MP Simon Court are championing the residents’ cause in a bid to get government agencies to step up and co-ordinate the asbestos clean-up.

The residents’ houses were contaminated when central Auckland’s Ponsonby Intermediate School erupted in a “ferocious” blaze a few doors down on December 8.

The fire flared in the school’s roof with multiple explosions and billowing smoke potentially carrying asbestos up to 100m down the neighbouring street.

A day later, Auckland Regional Public Health teams advised 12 home owners to leave their properties until they were cleaned.

But residents said they had since been left to clean up the mess themselves.

Interior designer Jill Goatcher was among those unable to return home, and worried that thousands of dollars of damage had been done to her house and work designs kept in the garage.

“I’ve had a very stressful year and the fire was the tipping point so that one day I had a breakdown and woke up in Auckland hospital,” she said.

“And now, trying to pick up the pieces, we aren’t getting any help.”

At a public meeting convened today, they said they had received no word of any financial support from the Government, despite the fire being on a Ministry of Education property.

Nor had any agency stepped in to co-ordinate the clean-up approach, they said.

Act MP Court previously worked as an engineer for a consultant company that oversaw the clean-up of asbestos contaminated sites.

Best practice involved appointing a project manager to ensure all clean-up plans were peer reviewed by independent companies and that the process was co-ordinated across all contaminated sites, he said.

Currently the residents’ insurers had banded together to manage the clean-up across their homes, but this was not being co-ordinated with remediation work at Ponsonby Intermediate School.

“If they don’t take a project management approach then there is a risk there will be cross-contamination between sites or that they don’t get it all,” Court said.

“And then you will have people down the track being revictimised saying, ‘I want to sell my property and someone has asked for an asbestos test and look I’ve found some more’.”

Worse, they could be exposed to health risks.

“If it is in your home and hasn’t been cleaned up properly then there is a significant ongoing risk.”

He was also critical of Auckland Regional Public Health’s advice to residents.

ARPHS medical officer of health Dr David Sinclair said the risk to people in the neighbourhood continued to be low.

“While asbestos is known to have damaging health effects, this usually occurs after high-level exposure over long periods of time,” he said.

Yet health officials earlier told residents in 12 homes closer to the school, they should avoid staying there until the properties were cleaned up.

But Court questioned how health officials could know only 12 homes were affected without doing tests.

A leaflet dropped in letterboxes also advised residents to bag and bin “clippings from the first lawn-mow after the fire”.

Young dad Charlie Thatham from one of the affected homes took that to mean he should mow his lawns, but was later told by an independent expert that was the worse thing he could have done.

An insurance assessor has since found his property was contaminated.

Auckland Council together with public health officials yesterday said specialist contractors were expected to begin removing asbestos debris from nine affected homes in the next few days.

“The insurance companies for the houses will be working with residents on the timetable for their return. The Ministry of Education also has insurers involved in this process,” the statement said.

The clean-up was expected to take place at the same time as operations at Ponsonby Intermediate to avoid any re-contamination, it said.

“The affected residents have been asked to vacate their buildings until remediation is completed, and these properties will have cordons, and signs advising that people should not enter the property without protective gear.

“Auckland Council and ARPHS are considering the results of investigations by the insurance companies’ loss adjusters, and assessing any remaining risk. WorkSafe is also required to approve any planned remediation work.”

Talk by council and public health officials was news to Goatcher, who said she hadn’t heard a peep out of officials.

With Christmas bearing down and the stress of her dilemma building, she just hoped to be able to return to her home as soon as possible.

Auckland Public Health medical officer of health Dr Denise Barnfather said it was “sorry to hear some residents feel the response to the fire could have been managed differently”.

“With a fire of this type, it’s important a number of agencies are involved in the response, and we are working closely with all agencies to make sure the risk of contamination remains low – as it is right now.

“Our priority is assessing the public health risk and providing advice to agencies and residents. We have been in touch personally with several residents who reached out with questions. Information and advice on the situation has been provided to residents and is available on our website, and we encourage all residents to contact us if they have questions”

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