Monday, May 8, 2017

Personal Vehicle Import Warning - Australian asbestos policy

In 2012 I imported a DKW 3=6 sedan from South Africa. Although it was a lengthy process it went smoothly enough and the car arrived safely with a minimum of fuss. Whenever people have asked me advice about importing a vehicle under the personal imports scheme, I have recommended it as a viable means of obtaining vehicles that are otherwise rare in Australia.

However, recent changes implemented by Border Force (formerly Australian Customs) have added a significant level of risk and expense to all personal vehicle imports. If you are considering importing a vehicle from overseas then you should immediately read up on the new regulations before committing to a purchase.

Zero Tolerance for ALL Asbestos Material
On 4 March 2017, without prior warning to shipping and Customs agents, Border Force announced a zero tolerance policy for ALL materials containing asbestos. This change of policy was a knee jerk reaction to two recent incidents involving Chinese manufactured products; one being building materials supplied for the new Princess Margaret hospital, and the other being Geely and Great Wall cars, all of which contained asbestos. I am given to understand that some Chinese companies have deliberately provided false declarations to Customs about asbestos content.

The upshot of this is that ALL personal vehicle imports to Australia are now subject to rigorous inspection and testing of all parts that are likely to contain asbestos. This includes testing of brake linings, gaskets, fibrous washers, heat shielding and soundproofing materials, mastic coatings and clutch linings. All vintage and classic vehicles will likely have some asbestos material and will, consequently, be inspected and stopped.

Details of the new policy and its implications are extensively documented here:

These changes are serious and the penalties for failing to adhere to these restrictions are extremely harsh. Additionally, at the time of writing (29 April 2017) procedures for handling vehicles that do have asbestos have not been worked through. The lack of a clear idea how to proceed can make resolution of the problem time consuming, expensive and frustration.

My Experience
I am a DKW obsessive and when I saw a very rare 1953 DKW F89 ‘personenwagen’ posted for sale on an international DKW forum, my interest was piqued. These cars, the first built after the Second World War, are quite rare as most owners disposed of them as soon as better built and bigger engined models became available in the mid-1950s. This interim model, powered by the smaller, pre-war engine, instantly became unsaleable and most of the 60,000 cars built ended up being scrapped.

Anyway, this car, off the road for many years, appeared to be complete, largely unmolested and in reasonably fair condition. It was also very cheap and after discussions with the seller I agreed to purchase the car. The car left its home in Lisbon, Portugal in January and was expected in Fremantle on 12 March 2017.

My car arrived at the Fremantle docks a week after the new rules were introduced and was consequently subjected to asbestos testing. The rear brakes, the head and manifold gaskets and in a mastic coating on the underbody all tested positive for asbestos. The car was immediately impounded and now the real problems began.

As procedures to deal with this problem were not in place, neither the shipping agent nor Border Force could agree how to proceed. After a discussion with the shipping agent, I proposed that myself and my mechanic friends at Classic Gasoline (who have done sterling work on my Tatra and DKW) attend the depot and remove the offending material. This offer was rejected by Border Force as we were not ‘authorized’ to enter the ‘secure’ dockside area. Border Force insisted I needed to engage a professional asbestos remover, but there were no asbestos removers who had the requisite automobile experience to work on a vintage vehicle. Further discussions were held and we then proposed to attend together with the professional asbestos remover in order to provide them the necessary technical guidance to work on the car. This offer was however refused.

Amusingly I have discovered the ABF are using this photo of my car in their Asbestos Policy briefing pack

We were forced to wait while affected industry bodies unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate some sort of workable process with Border Force. Eventually Border Force agreed to our original proposal to remove the asbestos ourselves. After completing the necessary paperwork and permits and booking a time to attend the depot, Border Force realized that conducting these repairs in a storage depot without the appropriate facilities might be unsafe and our permit was cancelled.

Discussions now turned to taking the vehicle to an offsite location where the work could be done safely. Border Force first declined and then approved a suggestion to transport the car to the Classic Gasoline workshop. Then they changed their mind again and advised the car could only be moved to a certified asbestos removal centre. After they realised that there was no certified asbestos removal centre that could do this work, they relented and permitted the car to be moved to Classic Gasoline. Paperwork recommenced, but once again we were thwarted at the last minute when Quarantine intervened. Quarantine advised that the car could be moved for removal of the asbestos only after it had been spray cleaned, but that it could only be spray cleaned after the asbestos was removed. Catch 22 meets Franz Kafka.

We returned to our original plan to remove the asbestos onsite and rebooked a time to attend, but once again this was cancelled at the last second by someone in the Border Force hierarchy who again demanded the work be done by an asbestos specialist. After another frustrating round of calls, it was finally agreed that Border Force, the original inspector, Rhys and Wayne from Classic Gasoline and I would attend the car, agree the work to be done and then we would be left to complete the work. This occurred on the morning of Wednesday 26 April 2017.

Despite the less than satisfactory environment we were forced to work in, it only took us four hours to remove the offending material – thanks to the sterling efforts of Rhys and Wayne. We were very fortunate that the DKW is a simple car with a very small engine which could be removed without the use of a hoist. Were the car something American (i.e., popular), this would have been a nightmare scenario and far more problematic. Border Force certified the removal of the identified asbestos material and arranged its formal seizure and destruction. A great deal of paperwork was involved.

Mastic coating in the wheel arch to cover a bad rust repair

After scrubbing with degreaser and a wire brush

The offending material is bagged up for disposal

Lessons for Personal Vehicle Imports
The Federal Government has recently proposed changes to the personal vehicle import laws that will make it easier for individuals to import a vehicle, however, the new asbestos enforcement regime adds a significant hurdle and additional costs to this process and I suspect a great many people will be caught out. Shipping agents are now warning all customers that they must obtain an asbestos test for their vehicles BEFORE they are shipped. If asbestos is identified, it must be removed before the vehicle is shipped and owners must provide evidence of asbestos clearance and confirm the vehicle is asbestos free. Serious penalties apply if these steps are not taken, including seizure and destruction of the vehicle and fines and/or imprisonment for the importer.

Please be aware that ALL privately imported vehicles are now being tested and the consequences for non-compliance can be serious. Do not think that you can just 'wing it' and deal with it if you are caught out. Take all necessary precautions to ensure the vehicle is certified before it is shipped. Do your research, read the Border Force website and speak to your shipping agent BEFORE committing to anything.

I believe my car was the third personal import vehicle impacted by the new rules in Australia, consequently, my experience may not be typical. I would hope that Border Force and the shipping industry formulate a coherent process for handling asbestos contaminated vehicles in the future.

A snippet from an article in Auto Talk 27 April 2017.

"Another key issue for importers is asbestos in imported vehicles and changes announced recently by the Government. “A complete lack of consultation” with the vehicle imports industry over the change could impact businesses, McIntyre says. “We were caught by surprise – it’s very disappointing a change like this would be made without proper industry consultation.

The main impact is just more red tape to import a vehicle. “Many vehicles are from Japan which has been asbestos-free since the early 2000s so it should not have affected any of them, apart from more red tape which the Government said was meant to be reduced.” “The Australian Border Force (ABF) has still not released enough information for us to know how they intend to police the vehicles for asbestos, what origins if any they are targeting, which is very frustrating for importers and customs agents across Australia. “We are still are not sure of the impact on the older vehicles entering Australia via the pre-1989 scheme.

We will continue to pursue ABF for more information.” Importers will now need to declare their vehicles do not contain asbestos before receiving ABF clearance. Vehicle components of most concern are brake pads, head gaskets and transmission components.

Like Autohub, the Australian Imported Motor Vehicle Industry Association is concerned about the confusion over the change and says it will be urgently speaking with relevant government authorities to seek clarification."
Link to an article by Mike Sheehan of Ferraris-Online about the asbestos issue. The experience of the Mustang owner is appalling.

 FAQ from Cargo-online

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