Canberra school boys caught driving dangerously on endangered grasslands identified as possible sacred site

Four teenagers caught drifting and doing circlework on a possible sacred Aboriginal site near the Australian War Memorial in Canberra have been fined and had their cars impounded.

The boys, three from Daramalan College and another from Dickson College, were caught by police on Friday as they attempted to leave the site.

Locals said they had called police at least a dozen times in the past year warning that P-platers were using the grasslands near the for dangerous driving, damaging an endangered habitat and risking their own safety.

The land is under assessment by the federal Environment Department for its significance as a sacred Ngambri site.

On Friday, a resident told the ABC that he saw several boys were once again at the site, drinking and swapping cars as they took turns skidding across the wet grass.

He said he became concerned when a car scraped a tree.

A blue sedan skids along wet grass and pavement, as several cockatoos take flight
One witness reported a Subaru lost control while drifting and hit a tree.(Supplied)

“It came out off Quick Street … it spun around on there and went onto the footpath,” he said.

Police officers caught the cars as they were leaving, and fined four of the boys for driving on a nature strip, not displaying P-plates, failing to stop at a stop sign, and improper control of a vehicle.

“Police interviewed all the occupants of the vehicles, and after receiving assistance from the occupants, four of the drivers were issued with Traffic Infringement Notices,” a spokesman for ACT Policing said.

“Further investigations into similar activity identified another driver who has been responsible for similar behaviour in the same area between November 2019 to August 2020.”

Two boys in school uniforms run towards a car drifting on grassland.
The high school boys were seen running between cars as they drifted, reportedly taking turns to drive.(Supplied)

Police said none of the identified drivers returned positive alcohol breath tests.

The resident, who had made multiple complaints to police in the past 12 months — including the previous Friday when a separate car was seen drifting — said government inaction had led to more teenagers abusing the site.

“When one of them, the white four-wheel drive, starts to show it off, the others say ‘well okay, that’s where you can do this kind of thing’, because the ACT Government does nothing, basically.”

A red sedan drives along grasslands.
A red Audi was reported a week before the four teenagers were caught at the site, seen driving dangerously on the grasslands.(Supplied)

ACT Policing said it was investigating other reports into similar behaviour at the site.

“The area is identified as an area of significance to the traditional owners,” the spokesman said.

“Police are urging members of the public with any information regarding dangerous driving of vehicles in this area to contact Crime Stoppers.”

‘Deep-seated frustration’ at destruction of claimed Aboriginal site

The site has been identified by the ACT Government as an important habitat for several endangered flora and fauna, but the grasslands have been significantly damaged by vandalism.

Earlier this year, the ABC reported that claims the land was also a sacred Ngambri site, used for men’s business, had been ignored.

Ngambri man Shane Mortimer, who raised the claim to the site’s Aboriginal significance, said he felt the land had been disregarded.

“It’s a deep-seated frustration, it’s an intergenerational frustration. The land really does need to be cared for,” Mr Mortimer said.

A man wearing stands in a clearing surrounded by rocky outcrops, with Parliament House visible in the distance.
Ngambri man Shane Mortimer said the grasslands had been ‘obliterated’ by P-platers vandalising the site.(ABC News: Jake Evans)

Daramalan College said it could not comment on issues concerning individual students.

However Mr Mortimer said the school had agreed to organise for its Year 12 students to visit the site and learn about its significance.

“We really have to look now for that opportunity out of adversity,” Mr Mortimer said.

The ACT Education Directorate told the ABC that because the incident was outside of school hours and off school grounds, it had not been involved.

Minister agrees to investigate installing bollards

Residents said they had been calling for the ACT Government to do more to protect the site for some time.

A white ute drives along dust and paths.
The same white ute recently photographed at the site has been spotted drifting there before, including here in 2019.(Supplied)

In June, ACT Greens leader and Justice Minister Shane Rattenbury wrote to the City Services Minister Chris Steel asking for them to be installed urgently.

“Last week, I became aware that there has been regular illegal driving on a piece of ACT land adjacent to the CSIRO site in Campbell,” Mr Rattenbury said.

“The area is natural temperate grassland with significant geological features onsite. It is an important ecosystem incorporating significant Aboriginal heritage [and] susceptible species such as the Canberra spider orchid, sunray daisy, golden sun moth and button wrinklewort.

“I write to request that you consider asking City Services to erect a series of bollards on Quick St in Ainslie, where vehicles are gaining access to this site in order to protect the significant ecology and cultural significance as a matter of urgency.”

A spokesman for the ACT Government said it would undertake an assessment of vehicle access through the section, and work with the owners of the adjacent land, now Doma Group, on options to limit access for vehicles.

Mr Rattenbury said it was disappointing to hear the site had been damaged again since he first raised the issue.

“This area should be protected, and the solution here isn’t complicated. Bollards along the border of the site could have prevented this unnecessary damage from taking place,” he said.

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Education Directorate says Yarralumla Primary School works that caused dangerously high lead levels in classrooms did not require lead-safe practices

Children at Yarralumla Primary School in Canberra have been forced to learn in hallways and the gym for over two weeks while work has been underway to remove unsafe levels of lead in their classrooms.

But, despite multiple letters to parents, lead contamination has been found in additional classrooms as recently as this week.

The ACT Education Directorate told the ABC that it did not undertake lead-safe works to replace old windows at the school, because the demolition of structures with lead paint was not considered a “lead process” by work health and safety laws.

Many buildings built prior to 1970 — like Yarralumla Primary School — often have lead-based paint on their windows, walls and doors.

As a result, professional painters undertake precautions when working on older buildings, like getting regular blood tests, using special stripping methods during remediation, and ensuring rigorous disposal of affected material.

“Unfortunately, it was used back in the day, just like asbestos. You cannot either drill at it, cut it or sand it,” long-time professional painter Paul Papas said.

“It is a very deadly material.”

Recent renovation work undertaken at Yarralumla Primary School, however, resulted in unsafe levels of lead being found in 11 classrooms.

Several letters from the school to parents and carers since July 22 have tried to explain the situation: old windows with deteriorating lead-based paint across eight classrooms had needed to be replaced, and following that work, unsafe levels of lead were found.

According to those letters, eight of the classrooms have been shuttered for specialised cleaning and further testing since July 17, but a further three rooms were only closed up this week.

Close up of peeling paint on a window frame.
The Education Directorate said replacing old lead-painted windows did not require lead-safe practices.(ABC News)

Until they are declared safe, many children at the school are being forced to take their lessons in any spare space available, including the gym, and even hallways.

Some parents have told the ABC their children are being rotated out into the playground for hours longer than usual.

Teachers at the Montessori school, which sits within Yarralumla Primary School grounds, have lost access to their kitchen, and primary school toilet blocks have also been declared unsafe.

The school has repeatedly reassured its community they were doing everything they could to ensure the safety of teachers and children — but unsafe amounts of lead have continued to be measured within the building.

Directorate says lead-safe works were not required by health and safety laws

The ACT Education Directorate told the ABC the initial work undertaken on July 6 to replace windows in eight classrooms was not considered an activity that needed lead-safe paint management.

In an email, the ACT Education Directorate said:

“The works undertaken were done so in accordance with advice from Robson Environmental who have confirmed: ‘The mechanical demolition of structures and objects painted with lead paint do not fall under the category of a ‘lead process’ as defined by the ACT Work Health and Safety Regulations 2011 (Section 392).'”

Instead, the school said, the process used “included the use of drop sheets and standard project cleaning”.

Following the work, the Directorate said lead levels — measured in milligrams per square metre (mg/m2) — were monitored on surfaces and in the air of each classroom.

It said prior to cleaning, lead levels ranged between 0.09 mg/m2 to 24 mg/m2 but dropped to between less than 0.1 mg/m2 to 1.1 mg/m2 after initial cleaning by Canberra firm International Asbestos Removals.

Parents and carers were advised by the school on July 24 that there was a low risk of exposure from the lead found in the rooms — but they were not advised of the actual reading.

The exterior of Yarralumla Primary School.
Elizabeth O’Brien, who helped phase out leaded petrol, says unsafe lead practices are common at worksites across Australia.(ABC News)

Scientist and lead expert Elizabeth O’Brien has campaigned for decades to raise awareness of the dangers of lead-based products.

She said the highest lead level found at the primary school’s classrooms was more than 22 times higher than what was deemed acceptable in the United States — a country Australia looks to for guidance on lead contamination issues.

“But if the highest levels were floor dust results, they were actually more than 222 times the US guidelines pre-cleaning, and 10 times post-cleaning,” she said.

Expert who helped phase out leaded petrol says Australia still unsafe

Ms O’Brien founded The LEAD Group some 30 years ago after finding her three sons had lead poisoning due to paint and petrol vehicle emissions.

She is responsible, in-part, for seeing leaded petrol phased out of Australia and has worked closely with local and international bodies, including the World Health Organization and the United Nations, in efforts to eliminate lead from paint and petrol globally.

She wants legislation around lead-based products and testing in Australia changed and said she was not surprised the window replacement operation at Yarralumla Primary School had gone ahead using what she deemed as unsafe practices.

“Rather than plastic drop sheets, they should have been using specialised and preventative lead contamination processes,” she said.

“In Australia, it’s just everywhere that there are unsafe practices.

“You can see painters with their canvas cloths on the ground and then getting out a dry sander or grinder.”

Her strong recommendation for parents with concerns about their child’s exposure to lead contamination was to get a blood lead test from a doctor as soon as possible — a move that has also been recommended by Yarralumla Primary School.

But she also has further warnings.

“The Government says that it’s only necessary to take action if the blood lead level is above 5 micrograms per decilitre, but [we] recommend that you take action when the blood lead level is above 1 microgram per decilitre,” she said.

Ms O’Brien said it was unfortunate there was no legislation in Australia stipulating what lead paint lead levels should be before lead-safe methods were required.

She also strongly believes buildings constructed prior to 1997 — not just 1970 — should be treated with special care.

In 1997 lead levels in new pots of paint were limited to 0.1 per cent.

“I would love to see some proper legislation to actually protect the environment, too,” Ms O’Brien said.

“It’s all very well … to protect workers from lead … but as the dust settles, you will definitely also get a lead contaminated environment left behind when the worker goes home.”

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