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Uranium ‘yellowcake’ found at Castle Hill High School in Sydney amid asbestos investigation

Uranium ‘yellowcake’ found at Castle Hill High School in Sydney amid asbestos investigation
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Read Time:7 Minute, 51 Second

Uranium has been discovered at a high school in Sydney’s northwest, amid an investigation into asbestos, which was previously found onsite.

The material was found on August 30 in a sealed box as a storeroom of Castle Hill High School’s science block was being searched for potential asbestos, following the discovery of white powder.

The “potentially hazardous material” in the box is understood to be yellowcake.

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Yellowcake is a uranium concentrate previously used in science classes to test for radiation.

The white powder has since been found not to contain asbestos.

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Parents and carers of students were informed of the potential yellowcake discovery via email on August 30.

“The storeroom will remain isolated and secured until the material is tested and removed by an appropriate authorised contractor this weekend,” a NSW Department of Education spokesperson told 7NEWS.com.au.

The area has been inspected and deemed safe, the department said.

The room is not located within a classroom and classes have not been affected.

SafeWork NSW has been informed and is investigating.

Uranium has been found at Castle Hill High School in Sydney’s north-west, amid an investigation into asbestos found onsite. Credit: Facebook

Documents obtained by 7NEWS.com.au illustrate the long and ongoing issue with asbestos at CHHS, dating back to at least 2008.

An October 2022 state government report used an inquiry into the “mishandling of the discovery of asbestos at Castle Hill High School” as a case study.

“Repeated reports of suspected asbestos at the school were not acted on over several years,” the report said.

The asbestos register for the school identified 76 entries of asbestos in 2008. Entries currently shown on the register date back to 2002.

The CHHS Work Health and Safety committee was aware of concerns about dust falling from the ceiling in some classrooms in 2010, but testing would not be conducted until 2016 after teachers lodged formal complaints.

Staff reportedly begged for testing to be done and even swept the dust into a zip-lock bag and handed it over to the school.

The sample used for the 2016 test was taken from dust falling from a staff room ceiling.

When positive results came back, this was not acted on or communicated to anyone for four years.

While the results came back on July 29, 2016, minutes from a Work Health and Safety committee meeting held days later on August 1 said the school was still waiting on the results.

Further Work Health and Safety committee minutes in September then stated the test had come back “all clear” and more testing would be conducted — but there is no evidence of this being done.

The positive test results would not be revealed to staff until May 11, 2020.

Parents were notified on May 13, and told that four buildings had been identified as hazardous and would be quarantined.

Investigations took too long

Two investigations were launched into CHHS’s handling of asbestos, by the NSW Department of Education’s Performance and Ethical Standards Unit and SafeWork NSW.

Staff alleged the principal and deputy principal covered up the discoveries to protect the school’s reputation.

“I believe it was intentional,” one teacher told the government during its inquiry.

The government slammed these investigations in its 2022 report for taking “a significant length of time”.

A teacher at CHHS filed a complaint with the Performance and Ethical Standards Unit on May 29 in 2020, but the unit did not say they would investigate until October that year — and conducted its first interview a month later.

SafeWork NSW was engaged in an advisory capacity in June 2020, with an occupational hygienist overseeing asbestos remediation works undertaken at the school.

It commenced an investigation in March 2021 following “further engagement” from a CHHS staff member in February 2021.

While the government’s 2022 report said the SafeWork NSW investigation was expected to conclude in late 2022, 7NEWS.com.au understands this investigation is still underway.

The Performance and Ethical Standards Unit investigation which concluded in September 2022 found that the principal and deputy principal of CHHS had engaged in misconduct.

This involved poor delegation and oversight practices, leaving a junior staff member with responsibility to manage testing and to action results, failing to take reasonable steps to action staff health and safety concerns about dust in a timely manner, failing to document key aspects of responses to asbestos risks, failing to follow asbestos policies and protocols — including involving other parts of the department with responsibility to manage asbestos issues — and provided false and misleading information to other staff.

Former CHHS principal Vicky Brewer was blacklisted as a teacher in 2022 and cannot be re-employed in a NSW school. She retired from teaching, complete with a celebration and standing ovation, in 2021.

Brewer, who was the WHS officer onsite at CHHS, told a teacher at the school that she had “never read the asbestos management policy”.

The former deputy principal, who made similar remarks, was demoted and transferred to a new school.

More asbestos detected

While the Performance and Ethical Standards Unit and SafeWork NSW investigations were underway, more asbestos was detected at the school.

Air monitors were employed while work carried out to convert a textbook storage room in December 2021 and January 2022 detected further traces of asbestos.

A letter distributed to parents and caregivers at the time said: “This substance was not associated with the material used to build the room, but was most likely remnants of an item stored in the room at some time in the past.”

In Term 4 of 2021, textbooks from that same room had been distributed to students. The school was then told to recall these books following the discovery of asbestos in the room.

Even after the damning report was released, more asbestos issues continue to be identified at CHHS.

In December 2022, material containing asbestos was discovered in a science storeroom while works were underway.

Air monitoring was installed in that room and nearby areas as a result.

A letter about this air monitoring installation identified a number of other areas at the school grounds which were expected to contain asbestos, and where works were about to be carried out.

Three demountable classrooms, the associated electrical material and the school’s science lab were identified.

‘Very serious’ fears of illness

Teachers at CHHS told the government they “harbour very serious concerns that in time they may contract an asbestos-related illness” during the inquiry into the school.

Their concern was exacerbated by the extensive period of time between the positive test result being received and when they were actually informed of it.

“Concerns of the teaching staff have been amplified by what they perceive as the persistent lack of responsiveness and accountability that continues to this day,” the report said.

One teacher even described CHHS’s attitude about asbestos testing as “begrudging”.

“It is highly distressing that their fears fell on deaf ears, and it is now apparent that they and their colleagues have experienced long-term exposure,” the report said.

The amount of asbestos present onsite was also downplayed, parents said during the inquiry.

“To find out that the amount of asbestos that is actually friable in the school is actually quite shocking,” one parent said.

They also criticised the lack of signage at CHHS about asbestos, saying it “poses a great risk to people who are coming onto site and actually disturbing asbestos and putting children, and staff, at risk.”

“This is unacceptable for the health and wellbeing of our children.”

Parents were also unable to access the air monitoring reports conducted at CHHS.

“I think enough time has been wasted, and enough lives have been placed at risk,” former Castle Hill MP Ray Williams said during the inquiry.

“I think we needed some urgent action.”

Ongoing safety concerns

It has been stated multiple times that CHHS is safe for staff and students. However, there’s still considerable distrust on the issue given the school’s documented history with noxious substances.

Staff told parents and caregivers to register their children’s details on the National Asbestos Exposure Register, but have not provided details of when the children were exposed.

It is also unclear if past students and staff have been notified of the exposures dating back to the early 2000s.

The poor handling of CHHS’s asbestos has caused “deep-seated fear and distress”, the government committee said in the 2022 report.

“It is abundantly clear that many people feel they have been unknowingly exposed to asbestos over a number of years, with some holding immense worry about their future, as well as the future of the children at the school,” it said.

“To make matters worse, a number of individuals raised their concerns early on and were not taken seriously.

“To find out that they were justified in their concern but dismissed at the time, has understandably left many feeling betrayed and frightened.

“The situation at Castle Hill High School should not have happened.”

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