Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A wasted opportunity to come clean on asbestos at Roberts Street

I went out my door this evening and saw the Office of Housing update on the Roberts Street redevelopment slotted into my letterbox. They had promised a newsletter before the demolition started on the asbestos-contaminated site, and here it was. Maybe some key questions about the safe handling of asbestos would be answered. Alas, this was another wasted opportunity for the government to come clean on asbestos at the derelict public housing estate.

More than a month after tenders closed on 17 January, we still do not know when the demolition will take place, who the demolition contractor will be, nor who will safeguard air quality during the demolition. The Office of Housing claims that tenders are still being assessed, but this just doesn't get them off the hook.

Even if that were the case, and the contractor were indeed yet to be selected, what might they have told us in this newsletter? Well, they could have said that further testing as recommended by their own asbestos audit would be carried out and the results would promptly be made public. They could have said that, once the contractor was selected, the asbestos control plan required by the tender would also be promptly released. This would allow the community to assess how well the contractor planned to address the issues and suggested removal procedures described in the audit.

Given that the demolition tender documents indicated that not all asbestos would be removed prior to demolition, the newsletter could also have clarified just what asbestos was proposed to be left, and why this was not to be removed beforehand when any recipient of the rubble planning to recycle it would be required to be notified of its contamination.

Many people assume that the government will just do the right thing. Unfortunately, when key questions are continually ignored in the name of spin, the community is completely justified in asking whether corners will be cut on asbestos safety at this site. Bland reassurances that so-called 'best practice' will be followed are no substitute for promptly making available the information that would allow us to judge for ourselves whether a truly rigorous process was being observed.

In short, this newsletter could have answered the ten key questions that were sent on 18 January to housing minister, Richard Wynne, and to Northcote MP, Fiona Richardson, who chairs the community advisory committee for the redevelopment.

When I called Richardson's electoral office last week to prompt a response, a staffer said the MP declined to answer because a response would come from the minister. On the very next day, however, I received an effective non-response on behalf of Wynne that was similarly bereft of answers, a situation that has not improved by the newsletter that arrived tonight.

We should be clear on one thing. This development is sorely needed. As of September 2007, there were more than 40,000 people on Victoria's public housing transfer and waiting lists (PDF).

On a number of levels this project could have set a benchmark for subsequent redevelopments under last May's $510 million state funding announcement. In some ways it may yet do that - the environmental aspects of the new design look promising. By all means use environmentally friendly materials in the construction, but what we cannot have is recycled and vague information that fails to answer important questions in the public interest. It's up to all of us to get the real answers in time to make sure this demolition is safe, not just 'cost-effective'.

Keep an eye on this blog for a downloadable copy of the newsletter and the 'response' I received from Richard Wynne to my ten questions.

Update: Here are the latest communications from the Office of Housing and Richard Wynne. You be the judge as to how far they go in answering the ten questions I sent to Wynne and Richardson back on 18 January.

February 2008 newsletter from the Office of Housing (PDF)
Wynne's 'response' to the ten questions sent on 18 January (PDF)

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