Friday, February 22, 2008

Asbestos secrecy raises safety doubts over public housing project

A recent government letterbox update for the Roberts Street Northcote public housing redevelopment has left unanswered key questions about asbestos safety raised by the government's own asbestos audit and demolition tender documents.

The 47-unit Roberts Street estate has been slated for demolition in February in a $9 million redevelopment announced early last year. Three types of asbestos have been found on the site, and it appears that major questions will remain unanswered as an imminent but unspecified start-date approaches.

Issued on 20 February, the update makes no commitment on further testing as recommended by its own audit, says nothing about releasing the results, is silent on releasing the demolition contractor's control plan that would indicate if audit findings will be addressed, and offers no explanation of why asbestos will remain in the buildings when they are demolished.

The update promises 'scrupulous compliance with all relevant legislation' during the demolition. After two more short paragraphs providing no new information about asbestos management, it concludes: 'All this and more is being done in order to ensure that the safety of neighbouring residents and the workers on site will not be compromised'.

Yet the failure to disclose information to the community about asbestos management during the demolition is undermining public confidence that no corners will be cut with asbestos safety when the buildings are knocked down. The site is located in a highly built-up residential area next to a children's playground (Baden Morgan Reserve).

The Office of Housing makes much of its inclusion of the asbestos audit in the demolition tender documents, but excerpts from these two documents show yawning gaps in the public disclosure of information about this project that could have been addressed in what is likely the final communication before the demolition proceeds. Consider the following:

Types of asbestos discovered:
  • Amosite
  • Chrysotile
  • Crocidolite ('blue' asbestos)
(Audit, results of qualitative identification of asbestos)

'Asbestos containing materials in the form of cement sheet, cement pipes, cement flashing, vinyl floor tiles, and mastic were located during the audit' (p. i, audit summary)

Recommendations include:

'A further assessment of currently inaccessible areas be performed prior to or during the course of the demolition works.' (p. i, audit summary) NO DISCLOSURE

'Where practicable, all asbestos containing materials be removed prior to the commencement of demolition works.' (p. i, audit summary) NO DISCLOSURE, but indications are that some asbestos will remain

'Confirmation of suspected or possible asbestos containing materials should be performed prior to demolition works commencing.' (p. i, audit summary) NO DISCLOSURE

Under the audit limitations we have the following:

'Not all suspect materials were sampled.' (p. 2, audit, limitations)

'Additional hazardous building materials may be present in areas that were inaccessible during the course of the audit and may be revealed during demolition or refurbishment works'. (p. 2, audit, limitations) NO DISCLOSURE

A letter from the Office of Housing asbestos auditor to the consulting engineer dated 7 November 2007 is also included in the tender documents:
'It is our belief that once demolished, the percentage of asbestos containing materials in the building rubble will not exceed 1% asbestos by volume.

It is therefore our opinion that the asbestos mastics do not need to be removed prior to demolition of the buildings. If however the building rubble is to be considered for recycling, the receiving recycling plant shall be notified of the nature of the rubble.'

So the asbestos is supposedly safe to leave in the rubble, but recyclers need to know about the contamination. Given this opinion, what does Housing say about what asbestos will in fact remain during the demolition process? - you guessed it, NO DISCLOSURE

Given that the Office of Housing, housing minister Richard Wynne (9096 7722) and Northcote MP Fiona Richardson (9481 5777) have failed to answer questions on these issues when they were called on to respond on 18 January, they either don't know the answers, or they do but want the community to remain in the dark.

The asbestos audit was done in mid-October last year, and they've had the report since early November (released Christmas Eve), so there's no excuse to keep secret information that the public has a right to know. Local residents, regular visitors to the adjacent park and especially the media are strongly encouraged to ring or email Wynne and Richardson and to press them for answers to the questions they were sent in January.

For further information, email me, Darren Lewin-Hill, or call me on 0404 526 555. Updates are available by filling in your email address in the form on the right-hand-side of this page.

For further background, please refer to earlier Northcote Independent posts about the Roberts Street redevelopment

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