Saturday, January 19, 2008

A quick tour of Roberts Street

If you've come here looking for more information about asbestos and the demolition of the Roberts Street public housing estate, welcome! You might even like to help with the public campaign.

I've been pursuing this issue for a while now, and have recently sent ten questions to housing minister, Richard Wynne, and Northcote MP, Fiona Richardson. Answers are urgently required, and, if I get a timely and meaningful response, they should provide important information the public needs to know about how asbestos will be safely handled during the February demolition of the estate. The answers may also lead to further questions and perhaps challenges to the process to ensure better protection of public health.

The Roberts Street estate has frontages to both High Street and Roberts Street, and is adjacent to the Baden Morgan Reserve and children's playground. If you start from the Westgarth strip and walk up Ruckers Hill on the right-hand-side away from the city, it's the cyclone-fenced site you come to just before the new apartments fronting High Street. There's a ramp off High Street leading down to Roberts Street. Here's what it looks like.

There are currently 47 units in two blocks of walk-up flats that until recently housed elderly public tenants, and the condition of the estate after years of State Government neglect fully warrants its redevelopment – that is to say, I support new public housing for the elderly on the site. There are more than 40,000 people on public housing transfer and waiting lists statewide as of September 2007 [PDF, small download].

Unfortunately, an asbestos audit [PDF, big download] carried out in mid-October last year shows there are three different types of asbestos in the now-derelict buildings. This poses a significant health risk both to workers and the surrounding community unless the demolition is carried out very carefully. My campaign is to make sure that happens, mainly by forcing the Government to be open and accountable about what is to happen on the site.

Sadly, I had to pressure Northcote MP, Fiona Richardson, to release the audit, and despite being completed in early November, it wasn't released on the Web until Christmas Eve, more than two months after samples were taken. We need the information because it lets us assess what the demolition contractor plans to do about asbestos during the demolition. The audit also tells us that further testing should really be done to cover areas that weren't accessible at the time of sampling. As well as missing some areas, the audit report also states that not all 'suspect materials' were sampled.

Far from being open about this information, the Government has made it hard to get, and it has been a similar story with the tender documents. When I finally received them in early January (after the tender was advertised on 12 December), I was alarmed to see they included a letter suggesting that the asbestos on the site might not be completely removed before the buildings are knocked over. We have a right to ask why, when the letter also states that the asbestos content of the resulting rubble will need to be disclosed to whoever receives it.

The tender documents also stated that more money would be allowed for a ministerial photo shoot ($12,000) than for the safe removal of any new asbestos found that had not been identified earlier by the audit ($10,000). That deserved some media coverage, and thankfully got it. So the signs were concerning. They remain so, and that's the reason for my questions to Wynne and Richardson.

We're now at the stage where the tender for the demolition has closed (17 January). A demolition contractor will now be selected and will be called on to submit an asbestos control plan, showing how asbestos will be contained during the works. Among the questions I've asked is whether this control plan will be made public, so we can see just how well it responds to the issues raised in the audit. Of course, there should be more testing (and public disclosure) before anything is done, and there's a range of other questions that need to be answered – including who the demolition contractor is, and what are their credentials for demolition work involving asbestos.

So, what can you do to help? It would be very helpful if you emailed housing minister, Richard Wynne, or rang him on 9096 7722. It would also be helpful if you emailed Northcote MP, Fiona Richardson, or rang her on 9481 5777. Express your concerns, demand that answers to the ten questions be made public as a matter of urgency.

You could also subscribe to email updates from this blog by entering your email address in the form on the right-hand-side of this page (it will only be used to keep you informed). If you use an RSS newsreader, you could also keep up-to-date by subscribing to this newsfeed.

That's it. All I want is enough information for the public to judge that the right thing is being done about asbestos at Roberts Street. We don't have that at present, but we have a right to know.

Once you've read this post, it would be a good idea to have a look at the Office of Housing website for the Northcote redevelopment, just to see whether you think it answers the kinds of issues and questions I've raised. I think you'll agree that it doesn't. In fact, despite the announcement of the project in February last year, the pages didn't go up until the following September, and most of them haven't been updated since.

Feel free to leave a comment here, or, if you prefer to communicate less publicly, send me an email. I'm happy to discuss the issue in further detail and to answer any questions you might have.

Cheers, Darren Lewin-Hill

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Comments are most welcome on any of the posts at Northcote Independent. I encourage feedback - positive or negative. Feel free to disagree, but remember that posts are moderated to ensure they are on the topic and in the spirit of open debate, as outlined in my editorial policy.