Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Comtempt for community concerns over asbestos

This morning shortly after 8.00am I encountered (and filmed) asbestos workers at the Roberts Street estate in Northcote. On questioning, they said asbestos removal works would likely proceed today. A 1 April start is consistent with advice provided by WorkSafe, but it falls just three full days (including a weekend) after Friday night's public meeting about asbestos safety.

That meeting was the first held by the Office of Housing on the issue, despite its having known about asbestos on the site since at least mid-October last year. That the start of works so closely follows this solitary meeting demonstrates nothing but contempt for community concerns about asbestos in an otherwise welcome $9 million housing redevelopment project. This is especially so given that the public meeting left unanswered a raft of questions on which Northcote MP Fiona Richardson, housing minister Richard Wynne, and the Office of Housing have been consistently pressed for answers.

The bureaucratic reasoning behind the pronounced lack of disclosure on this project appears to be that the word 'asbestos' evokes automatic public concern, which can be curtailed by telling the community as little as possible as late as possible before works start. As one bureaucrat said at Friday's meeting, the Office of Housing would do the right thing regardless of the level of public communication.

Unfortunately, when each belated disclosure forced by community pressure has revealed serious questions about the project – from the delayed release of an incomplete asbestos audit, to the housing minister's planned ministerial photo-shoot at the site, to concerns over the asbestos track record of the demolition contractor, and the very low total cost of demolition and asbestos removal – the public is entitled to view the lack of disclosure as a symptom that all may indeed not be well with asbestos management on the site.

Asbestos is relatively well regulated in Victoria, though not without scope for improvement. It should also be said that whatever WorkSafe inspections or air monitoring take place, if adverse findings arise then health risks have already occurred.

As one resident noted at the meeting, the Office of Housing seemed unclear on just how they would notify residents in the event of an incident. This situation was somewhat improved by WorkSafe's suggestion of an incident board, though some people may not be comfortable in coming close enough to read it if they see from a distance that an incident has happened. The WorkCover advisory line (1800 136 089), while also a good idea, may similarly allow reporting of incidents, but not prevent them from occurring in the first place.

If these are just fanciful concerns, why not disclose all relevant information? Addressing public concerns via continuing robust public communication would have instilled confidence in the community that there was nothing to hide and no corners had been cut. Instead, the Office of Housing has ignored our concerns and proceeded with the removal works.

This morning, I restated to Housing the call for a week's postponement of the works from the date that all key questions have been answered, related information has been released as identified, and the community has been updated via appropriate letterboxing. This morning, asbestos workers were on-site. What of the questions Fiona Richardson wrote down at Friday's meeting?

Finally, I have asked Housing to post an urgent notice of the status of the project on its website. Let's see how long it takes them.

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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.