Generations of Newcastle East Public School students and staff learnt and taught within a few metres of chunks of potentially deadly friable asbestos, freedom of information documents reveal.
The documents, obtained under Government Access to Information legislation, also detail the government's increasingly panicked attempts to decontaminate the heritage building after multiple positive samples were returned late last year.
The episode culminated with NW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell travelling to the school to apologise to parents for her department's handling of the matter.
While the documents shed new light on what the education department previously knew about the asbestos risk they also raise serious questions about the potential exposure of staff and students over many years.
The Newcastle Herald received 395 pages of partially redacted information relating to the discovery and remediation of asbestos at the school late last year and early this year.
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Parents first raised concerns about the risk of asbestos contamination when the department advised it would replace the 1970s-era faux slate roof tiles during the Christmas school holidays.
A certificate of analysis dated December 16 shows a positive baseline sample was detected on December 12, the week before the school term concluded.
The sample, a small piece of fibre cement, was found in a dust sample taken from the top of a cupboard in the heritage building.
The analysis showed it contained chrysotile (white asbestos), amosite (grey asbestos) and crocidolite (blue asbestos).
Its origin was not identified, however, it most likely fell from the roof cavity.
Three more positive samples of 'highly damaged' and friable asbestos were detected on top of a door, on a picture railing and on top of a room divider on December 18.
Although staff and students were not using the building the at the time the asbestos was discovered, it is not known how long it had been present in the room for.
An email from WSP Australia dated December 20 raised concerns about the implications of the positive tests for other parts of the school.
"The sample results have indicated friable asbestos to be present in multiple locations throughout A Block. Whilst the sample results indicate positive results only in a number of rooms, they indicate a broader issue with the integrity of the ceiling lining throughout," the email said.
"As such, all rooms throughout A Block are considered impacted with friable asbestos requiring remediation ...
"The presumed source of the friable asbestos contamination is through the raked timber ceiling lining boards."
The documents show discussions between the department and various contractors about the best way to decontaminate the building went into overdrive the following week.
As part of its urgent quote, Australian Heritage Restorations pointed out that it had highlighted the contamination risk "many months ago without any acknowledgement"
Another company, Artel Constructions noted in its December 27 quotation that: "Consideration will need to be given to the timing, the quantum, lack of specialist resources and the requirement to price this in a short amount of time over Christmas has meant there is a premium to pay to have this work done at all."
The department redacted details of how much it paid for the urgent works, however, the government said in response to a question in this year's Budget Estimates hearings that it had spent $1.4 million removing asbestos from the school to March 25.
The project took a turn for the worse on January 12 when an email from Artel Constructions advised asbestos roof sheeting, Super Six, had been located in the building's roof space between the tile roof and the ceiling battens.
Super Six was a popular brand of sheeting product made from asbestos and cement that James Hardie manufactured until 1985.
The product becomes dangerous when the cement base breaks down and asbestos fibres are released.
"Please be clear the extent is unknown until all the existing roof tiles are removed and can be visually checked, however, given the angle of the roof space, the bulk of it is found towards the lower portions of the gables near the eaves," the Artel email said.
"That being said, because its of a friable nature, the entire roof space needs to be decontaminated."
After viewing photos of the Super Six sheeting found in the roof, chair of the Asbestos Diseases Research Foundation Peter Tighe told the Herald that the material's advanced state of deterioration represented a major public health concern.
"Why wasn't it already on the Department of Education's asbestos register? It's not surprising that a building like that would have Super Six in it. Either they didn't look too hard or someone has taken a shortcut," he said.
"Fibres come loose as the material breaks down over time. For instance, it would have got a hell of a shake-up during the earthquake."
"If someone has been exposed at some point it becomes a ticking timebomb. You just have to wait until they get sick."
Despite being advised of the complexity of the work, which needed to be done in a short timeframe, the department expressed frustration on January 15 about the progress of the works.
"As per the discussion we are considering introducing another asbestos contractor into the mix to help expedite the works unless the programme provided can demonstrate works occurring concurrently with the aim to finish as the earliest date possible to achieve our objective," the department wrote.
Less than a week before the school was due to reopen another internal department email flagged the potential for future asbestos contamination.
"Although all identified asbestos will have been removed with affected spaces decontaminated, it can't be guaranteed (by either the principal contractor or hygienist) that any further friable asbestos material won't be discovered or dislodged from within the roof space while the replacement roof is being installed," the January 21 email says.
"... Although the further asbestos finds are unlikely once the above is completed, our preference remains that the building not be occupied until all works are complete both as a precautionary measure and to avoid community perception issues."
Staff learned of contamination when they returned to work on Wednesday, January 27. Some expressed concern about the plan to reopen the school.
Parents first learned of the contamination on Wednesday, January 29 when they were called to a meeting.
Furious parents demanded answers about the potential exposure of their children to asbestos.
One parent recalled that she had been accused of being "hysterical" for suggesting staff and students may be exposed to asbestos during the works in late 2019.
In a further twist, three more positive samples were detected on January 30 during an intensive effort to decontaminate the school.
"I'm not happy with the way this has been handled. I'm a parent and if I turned up at my daughter's school and was given the sort of information that you were I would be worried," she said.
Several parents expressed concern at the new details revealed in the GIPA documents.
A parent who did not wish to be named said the documents called into question what parents had been told about the safety of the school late last year.
"We were assured in mid-December that the site was safe for attendance, these documents may suggest otherwise," she said.
"No obvious concern was shown and parents were berated for being 'hysterical'.
She also questioned why potential exposure to asbestos contamination was not given the same priority as exposure to COVID-19.
"As it turned out, children had to work from home with the outbreak of COVID-19, perhaps this approach should have been taken for a health risk even more dangerous to the safety and well being of our children, staff and families," she said.