Thursday, March 6, 2008

More wasted paper, recycled answers

When it comes to the Roberts Street redevelopment, the State government seems a lumbering bureaucracy unable to read and answer simple questions about its own documents, let alone hear the voices of concern rising from the community at the prospect of asbestos dust rising from this otherwise worthwhile public housing project.

The March 'update' arrived in my letterbox today – courtesy of community advisory committee chair and Northcote MP, Fiona Richardson. This is a sublime irony given that it is my youngest daughter's birthday. Has Fiona Richardson given up sending self-promoting junkmail birthday cards to concentrate on empty junkmail flyers about asbestos-contaminated housing estates?

Actually, that's very slightly harsh, as the flyer does map out a rough schedule for the demolition. Unfortunately, it came out three days after the first date in that schedule – 3 March, when 'site establishment' was to take place ahead of next Tuesday's 11 March commencement of asbestos removal. True, the schedule went up on their website on 29 February, but that's still far too little notice, and who goes there except trouble-making 'activists'?

The reality is that the community can organise a public meeting faster than the government can deliver a single sheet of paper to a few letterboxes. And our events are much more informative!

Apart from the demolition schedule, the only other new information in the flyer is the name of the demolition contractor (City Circle Demolitions) and the revelation that the tender was let on 19 February, nine days before that information was announced even on the website. You've heard of slow-release vitamins? Well, you don't really get the same benefits with slow-release information.

What the flyer just doesn't contain are answers to the questions of the further testing recommended by the government's own asbestos audit, the public release of the demolition contractor's asbestos control plan, and the asbestos the tender documents indicate will remain in the buildings when they are knocked down.

Unfortunately for the government, events like yesterday's public meeting are beginning to make clearly visible the yawning gap between the information they recycle and the valid questions that continue to be persistently asked. At yesterday's meeting, I again called for answers to ten key questions about asbestos on this site, and that's what we really ought to have. All related documents should in addition be immediately released and the works should stop until there has been appropriate public consideration

And yet there was a strange glimmer of light in a letter I also received today – date stamped 4 March but delivered 6 March – from the Department of Human Services (bureaucratic home of the Office of Housing). The Director of Property Services and Asset Management was replying to my 27 February email seeking further information from another departmental officer. The glimmer occurs in the following paragraph:

The asbestos removal will be undertaken by subcontractors registered with Worksafe Victoria for asbestos removal and all removal work will require clearance from an independent occupational hygienist. This includes the removal of any materials containing asbestos mastics.

Two points. First, who is the hygienist, and who is the subcontractor who will be doing the asbestos removal work if it is not City Circle Demolitions itself? The WorkSafe bit is reassuring given their recent responsiveness to my queries, but I'd also like to see the subcontractor in the asbestos good books of the Victorian Trades Hall Council (they keep a register of approved consultants for this kind of work).

The second, and possibly more important point is about the 'mastics'. The wording of the letter is very slippery indeed, as it could mean that the occupational hygienist will monitor the removal of the mastics before the demolition, or, in a reading supported by the tender documents, it could indicate the hygienist will monitor the removal of the rubble containing the mastics after they have been knocked down with the building. Recall here the precise wording of the letter from the government's asbestos auditor to its consulting engineer included in the tender documents:

It is ... our opinion that the asbestos mastics do not need to be removed prior to demolition.

So which is it? Let's pin them down. We want a definitive statement that all asbestos will be removed before the demolition takes place – because there is no safe level of exposure. I suspect why this has so far not been recommended is that it may be considered cost-prohibitive, whereas the potential health impacts of asbestos-contaminated rubble are likely to occur in a longer, less accountable timeframe.

This trade-off isn't acceptable. By all means have the hygienist monitor removal of the mastics, but take them out before the demolition; don't just leave them to come down with the building and monitor the rubble on its way out in the back of a truck. Surely that's a better way to minimise the risk of asbestos-contaminated dust drifting over the playground and the neighbourhood?

So, after all this paper, and after many bites of the cherry of open communication, the government is still failing to come clean on asbestos at Roberts Street just days before the scheduled start of removal works. It's pathetic. So, please keep up the letters, and I will do my best to achieve the broadest possible attention for this issue. Remember that this is the poor level of information they think we deserve just days before the asbestos removal starts.

Tomorrow I hope to post scanned copies of the latest flyer and the letter, as it might take a while for even that level of junk information to be posted on the redevelopment website.

Update: The update and flyer are now available here as PDFs.

March Update
March Letter

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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.