Professor Bruce Thom, Chair of the NSW Coastal Panel, wrote to the Central Coast Council twice during February to raise concerns over the “clear danger” posed by building materials on Wamberal Beach.
Mr Thom, in a letter to the editor of Coast Community News, was responding to the article published on April 6, ‘Asbestos at Wamberal Beach remains in place nine months after being exposed’.
“The article noted that no action has been taken to clean up and remove dangerous structures and materials evident along the beach following the June 2016 storm,” Professor Thom’s letter said.
“The article notes ‘In January, Mr Bruce Thom, the current chair of the NSW Coastal Panel and Mr Phil Watson, a member of the Panel’s Secretariat, were photographed adjacent to the material.
“’The photograph was taken on the day of a beach inspection for the Land and Environment Court case between Wamberal residents and the Coastal Panel over their development application to build a revetment wall to protect their properties from coastal erosion.’
“Perhaps inadvertently, the article infers that Mr Watson and myself have also taken no action,” Professor Thom said.
“I wish to correct any misconceptions here for the public record,” he said.
“Indeed after the site visit for other matters noted in your article, Mr Watson and I conferred on these matters and I issued a letter to the Chief Executive Officer, Central Coast Council on February 6.
“This letter raised concerns over the clear danger posed by building rubble and other materials in this location and particularly urging the Council to consider an order for the removal of the danger including removal of the substances that constitute the structures.
“Having failed to receive an acknowledgement to the concerns that I raised, I subsequently wrote to the Chief Executive Officer again on February 27 reiterating these concerns and cc’ing the Minister for Local Government.
“Mr Watson (on behalf of the NSW Coastal Panel) received a response from Mr Jamie Loader, Unit Manager, Environment and Certification (Central Coast Council) in correspondence dated February 23 advising in part ‘Council is aware of a number of unauthorised structures along Wamberal Beach and is currently considering its legal options with regard to the most appropriate way to ensure the safety of the residents and the public.
“’Council thanks you for bringing this particular issue to our attention and I will ensure that it is actioned accordingly.’
“I trust the above-mentioned provides a more informed discussion concerning the role of the NSW Coastal Panel in directly and appropriately raising concerns about these serious matters,” Mr Thom’s letter said.
A statement issued by Central Coast Council on April 5 appears to contradict some of the information contained in Professor Thom’s correspondence.
According to Central Coast Council: “Council received reports of exposed asbestos on Wamberal Beach following the June 2016 storms, these reports were investigated and actioned with the property owners removing the material.
“It appears that further asbestos may have been exposed after the recent wet weather.
“We have investigated this and we are taking action to have it removed.”
The NSW Coastal Panel has confirmed that Professor Thom’s primary concerns were about the public danger from the overhanging nature of the materials and structure.
Following receipt of Mr Thom’s letter, Coast Community News put more questions to Central Coast Council regarding when it became aware that there was building material on the beach and the steps it had taken to remove the material.
Council’s written response was titled “subject to client legal privilege” and contained a warning from its General Counsel to be “very careful about publishing the comments of individuals”.
“Wamberal Beach is a dynamic environment, and is significantly influenced by weather events,” Central Coast Council’s latest statement said.
“Sand is deposited on, removed from and relocated on the beach.
“The June 2016 storms resulted in a quantity of building rubble and other materials being uncovered, or being washed on to, large parts of the beach.
“Weather events since those storms (including the recent heavy rains) have uncovered further building rubble and other materials, at different times since the June 2016 storms.
“The land that most people would identify as “Wamberal Beach” is comprised of parts of various private lots, Crown Land and an unformed public road.
“Council has responsibility only for the unformed public road.
“The boundaries between the private land and public land are not easily to identify without a survey.
“Parts of the private land are at beach level, and would appear to be part of ‘the beach’.”
“Council received letters from Professor Thom on February 6 and 27 identifying ‘layers of building rubble and other materials’ on part of Wamberal Beach which he considered to be dangerous because they were ‘undercut and overhanging’.
“Council’s Mr Loader responded to Professor’s Thom’s first letter.
“Professor Thom’s second letter incorrectly stated he had not received a reply to his first letter.
“Professor’s Thom’s letters made no mention of the potential presence of asbestos.
“Council has investigated a number of issues concerning ‘building materials’ that have been uncovered on Wamberal Beach by various weather events following and including the June storm events, and is currently investigating the issues raised by Professor Thom and the subsequently uncovered building rubble.
“Council has the view that the rubble was placed on private and public land without approval or consent of the former Gosford Council.
“Council is continuing to investigate how to manage the risks associated with this rubble, the risks associated with the potential removal of some or all of that rubble (which include the stability of the dune), and the best means to manage those issues that are primarily on private land.
“Council will very shortly be taking steps to cover the rubble, while it continues its investigation.”
The “client legal privilege” referred to by Council related to a document obtained by subpoena as part of Land and Environment Court (LEC) action between a group of Wamberal residents and the Coastal Panel over the panel’s refusal of the resident’s DA to build a revetment wall to protect their properties from coastal erosion.
Interested residents applied for access to the document under Government Information Public Access (GIPA) laws and were permitted to inspect a heavily redacted version of the document, entitled Wamberal Beach NSW Storm Erosion Remediation Report R16-029-01-01 prepared by Coastal Environment Pty Ltd July 2016.
In setting out its reasons for allowing public access to some of the information in the report whilst denying access to other information, Central Coast Council’s Access Information Officer said that the public interest considerations in favour of disclosure included “to inform the community of Council’s operations regarding public areas and to reveal environmental or health risks or measures relating to public health and safety”.
The decision to withhold other information from the public was explained as “the disclosure of the parts of the report to which I have decided to refuse to provide you with access to, could reasonably be expected to prejudice the Council’s ability to exercise its functions effectively.
“The report was commissioned by Council to identify and prioritise storm remediation works and assess the risk to the public areas of the beach front as well as identify properties which may be at risk following the weather event.
“The report also forms a body of evidence that has been gathered by Council in contemplation of future legal proceedings following the storm event.
“The likelihood of future proceedings is considered to be highly likely, as other areas within New South Wales, such as Byron Bay, have been subject to legal proceedings regarding matters of risk to beach front properties.
“Given the nature of the event that has occurred, Council considers the future prospect of proceedings to be highly likely.
“To release this information to the public would result in a prejudicial impact to Council regarding those proceedings.
“Other relevant factors against the release of this information taken into consideration are the reasonably expected prejudices to the exercise of Council’s functions in response to the impacts of the weather event. Council is still in the process of assessing the detail provided within the report and deliberating as to how it may exercise its functions accordingly.
“It is considered that if the information were to be released prematurely, before Council has had an opportunity to exercise any functions as it sees fit, the exercise of these functions may be prejudiced.
“Given the highly level of community interest in the Wamberal Beach area following the storms, and the ongoing involvement of the Council in the management of the various issues, and discussions with various third parties, it is considered that this factor against the release of information be given significant weight.
“As such, it has been determined on balance, that it is not in the public interest to release these parts of the Report.”
Letter, Apr 13, 2017
Bruce Thom, NSW Coastal Panel
Media statements, Apr 5 and 20, 2017
Central Coast Council media
Notice of GIPA determination, Mar 16, 2017
Central Coast Council
Jackie Pearson, journalist