Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Public meeting on asbestos, but arrogance continues

The announcement in a letter circulated on Tuesday that there will be an Office of Housing public meeting about the Roberts Street Northcote redevelopment project – if not exclusively about the demolition and asbestos safety – seems at first sight like good news. Yet that meeting – at Baden Morgan Reserve at 6.00pm on Friday 28 March – occurs just a couple of days before a revised start-date of Monday 31 March advised to me earlier this week by a senior Housing official (TBC).

If questions haven't been answered before then, and there are still doubts after the meeting, it will be effectively too late to further influence the outcome regarding asbestos safety and disclosure of public interest information. One could also argue that the timing of the meeting is hardly calculated to maximise community attendance, as called for in my request for a public meeting in (as-yet-unanswered) letters to Northcote MP Fiona Richardson and housing minister Richard Wynne on Tuesday 11 March.

With the good news effectively over, let's focus on the letter announcing the meeting. It came from Richardson, is dated 17 March and arrived in some Northcote letterboxes on Tuesday 18 March. The Northcote MP sets the ball rolling with this charmer: 'With demolition about to commence [emphasis mine] it has come to my attention that some misinformation is being circulated about the safe removal of asbestos at the site'.

Richardson doesn't say just who she thinks is circulating the misinformation, or indeed what it consists of, but she then proceeds to lay on the spin with a trowel.

There are indeed strict requirements and regulations relating to asbestos works in Victoria, but the existence of these controls does not guarantee compliance, and in the face of sloppy and evasive disclosure, the community is entitled to doubts that correct processes will be followed.

Yes, only a licenced removalist can do the work, they must submit a control plan, and the air will indeed be monitored, but who is the removalist (a sub-contractor to City Circle), where is the control plan, and how frequently will the air be monitored? Will the results of monitoring be promptly released? Richardson skates over these issues in the same arrogant way she has treated key questions sent to her on 18 January and again on 11 March after the community's 5 March public meeting

Remember, the asbestos removal works were scheduled to begin onTuesday 11 March. Richardson, Wynne and Housing were prepared to steam ahead without the shoddy FAQs they published only on Friday 14 March, without identifying the sub-contractor, without releasing the control plan, and without answering a series of questions about this project to do with further testing and the asbestos that tender documents indicate will be left at low levels in the rubble from the demolished buildings. But for a difficulty disconnecting power from the site – a squabble described in today's irrelevant coverage in The Melbourne Times – the works would have already commenced.

For Richardson to state in her letter that all Office of Housing documents have been made publicly available is a farce. The minutes of community advisory committee meetings have not been readily available, and they have certainly not been published online; the asbestos audit was completed mid-October 2007 and was published on the redevelopment website only on Christmas Eve 2007

The tender documents have never been published online and Housing made it difficult to secure a copy if you were anyone but a demolition contractor bidding for the job. I got my copy on 3 January, after the tender was first advertised (but not notified online) on 12 December and I threatened the Office of Housing with legal action if they released official tender documents on a selective basis.

Now, as drips of information are squeezed from Housing and the demolition looms, we should ask just how far in advance of the start-date the community will have a full picture of the risks and the measures proposed to mitigate them.

Bear in mind that every question that has arisen from this project stems from information grudgingly released by the Office of Housing. One can see why they are so poor at disclosure. At the forthcoming public meeting I will have those hard-won public documents for anyone who wants to see them, and can show you just where the issues arise.

I will also be asking how a 47-unit public housing estate can be safely demolished – including asbestos removal – for the princely sum of $161,150 – a figure that equates to less than $3500 per unit in a redevelopment worth $9 million. What role did price play in the tender selection?

Finally, the demolition contractor, City Circle, will be sub-contracting out asbestos removal in this case, but I think many people will share the view that their own track record with asbestos is nevertheless highly relevant. I can only suggest that you read this 2005 case from the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) and form your own judgment.

So please come to the public meeting and call Richardson to account, though her letter doesn't even confirm she will be there. Indeed, her absence would be unsurprising given that she was invited to but did not attend the community's own meeting in the park on 5 March.

In the meantime, please email Richardson or call her on 9481 5777 to demand answers, the prompt release of related information, and her attendance at the public meeting to account for her actions on this issue as your local MP and chair of the redevelopment community advisory committee.

Please also write to the local papers or call them, and say that you want to see rigorous coverage on asbestos safety at Roberts Street, that you want to see the community's questions meaningfully answered well before the asbestos removal starts. There is likely only one more edition of our weekly locals before the works start.

To make your views known, email Brigid Ennis at The Melbourne Times or ring her on 9473 4700 (switch) and say you want to hear more than distracting trivia about bureaucratic squabbles over turning off the power on the site. Email Heather Gallagher of the Northcote Leader or call her on 9495 9568 (direct) and ask why the paper has failed to cover the issue despite being called and sent information about it. Radio 3CR has been the only local media champion on this issue, consistently providing a forum for raising genuine public interest concerns.

If you disagree with this post, let's have your arguments and an open debate – leave a comment or question, send me an email, or call 0404 526 555 to talk in person.

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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.