Saturday, March 29, 2008

Public meeting too close to start of asbestos works

There'll be more on this soon, but here are my initial thoughts on yesterday's well attended public meeting about the asbestos-contaminated Roberts Street Northcote public housing estate. The meeting was held by the Office of Housing at the adjacent Baden Morgan Reserve.

WorkSafe representative, Steven Peters, advised that notification of asbestos removal had been received by WorkSafe that day, allowing the works to proceed on Tuesday 1 April (next week). This is only a day later than the 31 March date I had been told over the phone by senior Housing official, Ed David, and shows what little regard for public concern is held by the Office of Housing – there's really just this weekend and Monday between the expression of quite a few unaddressed concerns and the start of the works.

Remember also that Housing was ready to proceed back on 11 March – without the so-called FAQs they posted on their website only on 14 March, without releasing the asbestos control plan, without telling us who the asbestos removalist is (WorkSafe told us anyway), without a commitment to release the results of further testing, and without last night's public meeting, which was forced by community pressure that has included an independent community meeting held at the park on 5 March.

Last night Northcote MP Fiona Richardson, who chairs the community advisory committee for the project, said little, avoiding questions raised with her consistently since November last year, including in unanswered letters in January and earlier this month. Despite her prominent role in the project, Richardson's approach was to allow Housing officials to take all the heat.

Ed David, Director of Housing's Property Services and Asset Management Division, was among them. He avoided confirming a start-date but was undone by WorkSafe's advice about the notification it had received that allows the 1 April start mentioned above. Despite being just days away from the start of the works, the asbestos control plan, according to David, was still not in its 'final form'. He would also not commit to the release of the plan, and seemed unaware of a commitment to do this in the FAQs published on Housing's own Roberts Street redevelopment website

Nor would he commit to the release of results from asbestos air monitoring to be undertaken during the removal and demolition works. A local resident raised the strong point in this regard that by the time monitoring showed safe levels had been exceeded, it would already be too late.

A theme to emerge from Housing was that it would follow proper procedures with asbestos regardless of the effectiveness or otherwise of any public communication. I noted in response that asbestos laws did not guarantee there would be no breach in safety, and that, regardless of the legal framework, any increased transparency would result in greater government accountability – a good thing when it came to asbestos.

Points raised about the demolition contractor's track record on asbestos, and about the very low fixed price of the demolition contract ($161,150 including asbestos removal) were skated over by Housing, but remain of concern.

They were also dismissive of the fact that the asbestos removal sub-contractor, while legally licenced by WorkSafe as a class B removalist, is not included in Victorian Trades Hall Council's register of recognised removalists (List 80). The sub-contractor has therefore not signed the VTHC's stringent code of conduct that goes beyond the legal asbestos licencing requirements administered by WorkSafe.

The VTHC advised me before the meeting that improvements could be made with regard to asbestos safety in Victoria, and that WorkSafe last year agreed to work with the VTHC by re-establishing an asbestos activities reference group to look at strengthening inspections and addressing problems.

The meeting left unclear the status of the park during the demolition. Again, just days before the works begin, clear details about what will happen with the park did not really emerge, and a likely road closure of Roberts Street was raised without a commitment to publicise the details well in advance.

Were there any positives to emerge from the meeting? Yes. The fact that it happened at all was a good thing, despite an agenda having been set without public notification, the poor timing of the meeting, and the inappropriate proximity to the start-date of the works.

There was also some clarification of what will happen with asbestos 'mastics' (rubbery asbestos containing sealant used on panels in the flats). There appears to have been a shift from the position indicated in the tender documents, such that mastics will not now be left to fall with the rubble, but will be carefully removed beforehand. Good.

Another positive was the level of community engagement. People clearly responded to the community letterboxing, despite poor promotion of the meeting by the Office of Housing. There were just a few among the audience not wanting an open debate, but they were not across the detail and were ineffectual in the face of a clear public will to get some answers. There were also many good questions from active local residents apart from myself, while many others have worked to publicise the meeting among local families.

Also positive has been the responsiveness of WorkSafe in answering my inquiries, and in the attendance by Steven Peters at the meeting. Steven advised that residents could ring the WorkCover advisory number 1800 136 089 should they see anything happening on the site that causes concern. He also told me after the meeting that an incident board would be installed near the site, providing up-to-date information about incidents/issues of concern during the asbestos removal and demolition process – a positive step.

Victorian Trades Hall Council has also been very responsive on this issue with information and advice in the lead-up to the meeting, and in facilitating contact with WorkSafe and other relevant parties. The VTHC clearly has a key role in advancing occupational health and safety, including the appropriate management of asbestos.

What should happen now? Well, Fiona Richardson took down some questions she's really already had quite a few times over past months, so these should be published with responses on the redevelopment website without delay. Among the information to be provided, we should have all results of further testing on the site, a response to the call for the public release of air monitoring results, an honouring of the commitment in the Housing FAQs to release the asbestos control plan, and clear explanations of what will be happening with the park (including how it will be protected) and the closure of Roberts Street.

There's a lot here still not on the table given the proposed 1 April start. That start must therefore be delayed for at least a week after all the above information has been provided and publicly notified through a letterboxed update. That way there will at least be some minimal timeframe within which the released information can be publicly scrutinised and further questioned as needed. Fiona Richardson and the Office of Housing must be open and quickly responsive to any new questions that arise in that period. Unless these steps are taken, last night's public meeting will be mere lip-service to public concerns about asbestos at Roberts Street.

Questions? Send me an email, or call 0404 526 555. You could also email Fiona Richardson or call her electoral office on 9481 5777 to express your concerns.

Stay tuned for more following review of the digital video recorded at the meeting.

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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.