Thursday, December 13, 2007

Full picture slow to emerge on Roberts Street asbestos

Public pressure on Northcote MP, Fiona Richardson, and the Office of Housing is beginning to pay off with the slow emergence of the full picture of the asbestos in the soon-to-be demolished Roberts Street public housing flats. Calls on this blog and in The Melbourne Times for the release of information have resulted in the tardy update (11 December) of one page of the Office of Housing's website about the redevelopment. The relevant passages on asbestos read as follows:

An extensive audit for the presence of asbestos containing material was the first step in planning for the safe demolition of the buildings. The analysis was undertaken by independent experts and found asbestos materials in eaves linings, heater flues, window flashings and some joint sealants. Asbestos was a commonly used building material between the 1940's and mid 1980's because of its qualities of fire resistance, insulation and durability. The material was phased out between 1975 and 1985.

The handling and removal of materials containing asbestos will be undertaken by specialists according to the highest industry standards. In addition, an independent occupational hygienist will be engaged to monitor air quality during the works and provide a 'clearance certificate' for the asbestos removal, to ensure that the dust levels during demolition are below the prescribed maximum levels.
So what can we surmise from this? Well, the extent of asbestos on the site is somewhat clearer – there seems to be a fair bit of it. It also appears that an audit has been done. So, judging by Richardson's commitment in The Melbourne Times (5 December, page 8), its full release must be imminent. That will tell us when the audit was done, who did it, what the specific findings were, and what type and amount of asbestos is present ('an extensive audit for the presence of asbestos'). We'll also be able to judge whether the release of public information has been timely.

We also have a better estimate of the demolition timeline. According to the page quoted from above, it's looking like February. OK, good to know. We have a bit more time to get very clear about the situation and to take steps to inform the public if Richardson and her bureaucrats fall down in that regard.

What is still unknown? Well, we don't know who will undertake the demolition, as the tender will be advertised mid-December (that's in the next few days, I guess). However, we should expect notification on the redevelopment website, and it should certainly appear on the Victorian Government Tenders website, should it not? The documentation should reveal pretty plainly the sort of precautions that are expected to be taken during the demolition – presumably referencing State controls regarding asbestos.

We should also expect to know who the 'independent occupational hygienist' is, and exactly how the monitoring will be performed. Will this be the subject of a tender? If so, the same considerations apply as with the demolition tender.

Once the demolition contract is let, we should be able to find out who won it and look into their track record regarding demolitions involving asbestos. Will the contractor be on the Trades Hall register of approved consultants, for example? I hope so.

Finally, despite a modest concession to public information, we still don't have available on the website the minutes of any of the community advisory committee meetings – including the 26 November meeting at which the issue of asbestos was supposedly discussed. So, to the public release of the asbestos audit and the tender information, we should add the minutes of these meetings.

Why is all this necessary? Many people have a tendency to believe that the government will 'do the right thing'. To that kind of belief I would respond that the government/public housing bureaucracy has let the Roberts Street flats deteriorate over years knowing that asbestos was present. It is commonly known that the risk from asbestos increases with such deterioration. In that case, surely it is more likely the government will 'do the right thing' if they are persuaded to release information by which they can be held accountable. And that must benefit everyone living in close proximity to the flats, or who happens to live downwind of the demolition.

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