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.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Come along to the park tonight to demand answers on asbestos

Hopefully you've seen the flyers I've distributed about the place, but if not, please be sure to come along to the Baden Morgan Reserve tonight at 6.00pm to demand answers from Northcote MP Fiona Richardson about asbestos management during the redevelopment of the adjacent Roberts Street public housing estate. Asbestos removal works are set to begin on the site next week, with many questions still unresolved.

If you're new to the issue and are coming here for the first time, you might like to watch a short video embedded in the previous post that covers some of the key issues. If you have trouble with that, you can always watch the video on the YouTube site.

Hope to see you tonight!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

A video tour of Roberts Street

On the eve of tomorrow's public meeting – 6.00pm Friday 28 March at the Baden Morgan Reserve – here's a short video covering some of the key issues about asbestos at Roberts Street.

To view the video, click on the 'play' symbol on the menu at the bottom of the embedded video screen. If you have trouble, you can also view it directly at the YouTube site.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

WorkSafe confirms asbestos suspension

WorkSafe today confirmed via email that City Circle was indeed suspended for ten months from removing asbestos in May 2005, and is currently not licenced to remove the deadly fibres.

According to WorkSafe, the company was last licenced in 2006 but did not meet the criteria for renewal and so its licence was not renewed. WorkSafe said the exact date in 2006 of the company's last licencing would need to be confirmed by reference to archives. A recent email inquiry to the company regarding the circumstances of its past licencing has so far met with no response.

As mentioned in other posts on this blog, City Circle – which is well qualified to knock the buildings over – will sub-contract out asbestos removal to a company licenced by WorkSafe. While the identity of the sub-contractor is yet to be published by the Office of Housing, WorkSafe confirmed in the same email that Imajika Pty Ltd is the licenced sub-contractor for this project. According to WorkSafe's website, the company is currently licenced as a Class B asbestos removalist, but separate inquiries show it is not included on the Victorian Trades Hall Council's latest list (No. 80) of recognised asbestos removalists.

VTHC publishes the list every three months to inform people which companies have signed its stringent asbestos code of conduct, which goes beyond Victoria's legal and regulatory requirements of asbestos licencing by WorkSafe.

The licencing of the sub-contractor is good news, but the asbestos track record of the lead demolition contractor is not. One would have thought this was precisely the kind of information that the Office of Housing ought to have disclosed in the public interest. Maybe they can explain why they didn't at Friday's public meeting?

Safety first on asbestos?

There's no question mark in the same headline in Heather Gallagher's story for the Northcote Leader this morning, but her article at least promotes the public meeting at 6.00pm this Friday 28 March at the Baden Morgan Reserve next to the Roberts Street flats. It also includes my quote about the persistently poor public communication about asbestos safety in this project.

Further, the article appears to confirm that Richardson will attend Friday evening's meeting, offering locals the opportunity to run the gauntlet of bureaucratic stage-management to ask their local MP some tough questions about asbestos safety.

Many of the questions that still need to be answered, despite the so-called FAQs offered by Housing, are set out in my still unanswered letters to Richardson and Wynne of Tuesday 11 March. Of course, another big question is why there will be such a ridiculously short time before the release of any new information, the public meeting, and the revised start of asbestos removal works – which I am led by a senior Housing official to believe will be next Monday 31 March (thanks, Ed).

While the release of any new information this week – the asbestos control plan, the name of the asbestos removal sub-contractor etc. – will indeed be most welcome, the public needs to see just how close to the start of the works this takes place. For this reason, I have taken a snapshot of the Office of Housing redevelopment website as of this morning, so we can see just what is added in the last few days before the meeting and the start of the works. The snapshot shows the site was last updated on Wednesday 19 March, so let's wait and see.

Why are the timeframes for disclosure so important? Well, as I said in the Leader article, the community needs to have the information necessary to judge for itself that public health will be protected. It needs that information in time to challenge the government's actions, not when it is already too late to do so.

In this case, the failure of timely disclosure has been accompanied by government embarrassment in relation to the asbestos audit and the tender documents when information has finally been released or otherwise disclosed.

With the announcement of the demolition contractor, City Circle, in late February, the government is also yet to explain this VCAT case regarding the ten-month suspension of an asbestos removal licence. City Circle will sub-contract out asbestos removal for the Roberts Street project, but its own track record in this area is highly relevant to the project and should have been disclosed in the public interest.

Come to Friday's public meeting and we'll get some of these issues on the table!

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.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Asbestos FAQs don't make the grade

The Office of Housing has a liking for 'posting' new information at obscure times, and the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on asbestos at its Roberts Street Northcote public housing estate are no exception.

They went up on the redevelopment website yesterday evening (Friday 14 March) and unfortunately offer an inadequate picture of asbestos safety measures during the imminent demolition of the derelict 47-unit estate. Bear in mind here that the works were to start on Tuesday 11 March without anything like even the poor response to questions offered by these FAQs.

Also note that the FAQs seemingly represent the Office of Housing's best response after many bites at the cherry, and after they were sent key questions about this issue back on 18 January – questions that were updated and again highlighted for them in letters sent to Northcote MP Fiona Richardson and housing minister Richard Wynne last Tuesday 11 March.

Well, I've safely archived their FAQs and here make available a comprehensive response [PDF] showing just where the gaps are – and they are many. The response has links to further information online, and tips on some simple things you can do to get a better result on this issue. It also contains contact details for Richardson and Wynne – as well, of course, for me. Questions and comments are welcome!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Exactly who's doing what at Roberts Street?

Recent correspondence from the Office of Housing suggests that the successful tenderer for the Roberts Street estate demolition, City Circle Demolitions, will be sub-contracting out asbestos removal to a company registered for the work with WorkSafe Victoria. If this is the case, we still do not know who will actually be doing the work, nor whether the sub-contractor has submitted an asbestos control plan, let alone whether it will be made public any time soon.

What we also do not know is the management relationship between City Circle and its sub-contractor. To what extent will City Circle be managing its sub-contractor's work? Just what previous experience does City Circle have with projects involving asbestos?

A search of all classes of licenced asbestos removalists by name and suburb at the WorkSafe Victoria website appears to indicate that City Circle is not itself currently registered for asbestos removal work – hence the sub-contracting arrangement, which I understand from WorkSafe is quite common and acceptable in these cases.

However, we are entitled to ask if the company has ever been registered for asbestos removal, and, if so, what were the circumstances of any previous registration, including if and when its registration lapsed or otherwise ended.

Following contact with WorkSafe on the 5 March, I have again written to them to look into these and other matters. As everyone expects the government to set the standard for asbestos removal in these kinds of projects, if everything is being done that should be done, they should have no difficulty in answering these kinds of questions – in writing and at a public meeting. One would imagine they are indeed the kinds of questions the Office of Housing would have asked during the tender selection process.

There are also no prizes for guessing that I am yet to receive a response to letters I sent to Wynne and Richardson on Tuesday 11 March – the date asbestos removal works were to begin before a sudden postponement announced on the Office of Housing website last Friday. The letters set out the unresolved questions remaining from those previously sent to Wynne and Richardson on 18 January. They also demand appropriate disclosure of related information, and call for a public meeting on asbestos safety before the asbestos removal works begin.

The questions about this project are mounting, yet public interest information is still scarce. Is this really good enough? I suppose you could say it's garden-variety non-disclosure of the kind we've become used to seeing. Unfortunately, in this case, it involves asbestos.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Asbestos delay sparks new call for answers, public meeting

Last Friday's Office of Housing web announcement (bottom of page) that Roberts Street asbestos works would be delayed followed by just one day the 6 March letterbox update telling us that the works were to begin this week on Tuesday 11 March. The reason for the sudden turnaround? Apparently, there have been difficulties getting the electricity switched off on the site.

The delay provides an opportunity for the Office of Housing to heed the increasing community expressions of disquiet over the handling of asbestos on this site following last Wednesday's successful public meeting at Baden Morgan Reserve. The meeting called for a stop to the works until appropriate information is released and community concerns over asbestos have been resolved.

Despite the supposed problem with getting sparkies on-site to turn off the power, the delay will likely be brief, and so I have taken the opportunity to write again to Northcote MP Fiona Richardson and housing minister Richard Wynne to highlight the questions remaining (including the release of information), call for the stoppage, and suggest a public meeting at which asbestos issues can be openly discussed and questions answered before the works begin.

The letters, to be sent by email and fax Tuesday morning, are here in PDF format:

Tuesday 11 March 2008 letter to Fiona Richardson

Tuesday 11 March 2008 letter to Richard Wynne

I encourage everyone to write to these pollies themselves as soon as possible, and to encourage their friends to do the same. Further public action will be advised here.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Keeping an eye on Roberts Street

While the Office of Housing has advised that asbestos removal works will now not commence this Tuesday 11 March, it is important that everyone keeps an eye on the Roberts Street estate in case unscheduled works begin. This shouldn't happen, but if you do see activity on the site that appears related to the demolition, here's what to do.

First, call me on 0404 526 555 and I will alert the media and send a text alert to local families.

Secondly, use whatever means you have to capture a digital record of what's happening. If you have a digital video camera, you can upload footage to the ABC News website that will be considered for ABC News. You can also send pictures by email or mobile (MMS) to +61 417 751 633. If you are contacted by the media for comment, you are welcome to refer them to me as you wish.

The delay in the scheduled demolition works offers us an opportunity to put our case for further public disclosure and a halt to demolition works until all the facts are in and have been considered by the community. Don't let them catch us napping!

For further background:
Demand asbestos answers by Tuesday
More wasted paper,recycled answers
Thanks for coming to the public meeting!
Demo safe for Northcote families?
A quick tour of Roberts Street

Friday, March 7, 2008

Demand asbestos answers by Tuesday

STOP PRESS – An Office of Housing website update today states that asbestos removal works have been stalled 'due to delays in disconnecting electricity on site by power authorities', and that a new schedule will be advised. A window of opportunity has opened. Please read the following, and get your emails, letters and calls into Richardson and/or Wynne as soon as possible.

I had a bit of a walk around the Roberts Street redevelopment site after work this afternoon to see if the site establishment works had begun for the asbestos removal – they were scheduled to begin last Monday, 3 March.

No movement as yet, but this school fete advertisement struck me as an eloquent statement of what's at stake here in the lead-up to asbestos removal works scheduled to start in earnest next Tuesday, 11 March. Why can't the government answer basic questions about asbestos safety that arise from their own documents when the health of the community, and of our children, is at stake? Their empty flyers reassure us that all appropriate steps are being taken, yet they have consistently delayed the release of information and have failed to answer questions put to them on 18 January and many times since.

After walking around the site, I went down to the park and spoke to four or five families who weren't at Wednesday's public meeting. I outlined the case to halt the works until more information is released and time has been allowed for its consideration. I asked people to get in touch with Richardson and/or Wynne to express their concerns over such poor public communication and potential cut corners with asbestos safety. No-one felt they'd been properly informed. Most were only vaguely aware of the issue of asbestos, let alone the Tuesday start. They were concerned, when moments earlier it was just another sunny late afternoon at the park.

With the works to commence this Tuesday, it's getting late in the day, but it's not too late to voice your protest by calling Northcote MP, Fiona Richardson, on 9481 5777 or emailing as soon as possible on Tuesday. You could also call housing minister, Richard Wynne, on 9096 7722 or email If you have friends in the area, or who are regular visitors to the park, encourage them to do the same.

If, as is likely, you're told that everything is in order, ask why they haven't answered the ten questions sent to them on 18 January, how their reply to ABC Stateline is going, and whether they think we really deserve such a poor level of information just days away from the start of demolition works.

In particular, ask them where are the results of the further testing recommended by their own audit, where is the demolition contractor's asbestos control plan, and why not all asbestos will be removed before the buildings come down. That should set them thinking, but will it stop the demolition works until the answers are known?

Monday evening could be crowded down at the park – one last chance for a dust-free play on the swings for our children. Maybe I'll see you down there.

Other posts of interest:

More wasted paper, recycled answers
Thanks for coming to the public meeting!

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

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Thanks for coming to the public meeting!

I very much enjoyed meeting community members at today's public meeting about asbestos safety and the Roberts Street public housing redevelopment. For such a short-notice event the more than 20 grown-ups and at least 15 kids and babies (including one very wriggly customer I got to hold) made for a great meeting from which I gained a better sense of the concerns about this project.

The main outcome of the meeting was agreement that the demolition works should stop until such time as Northcote MP Fiona Richardson, housing minister Richard Wynne, and the Office of Housing are able to provide meaningful answers to the ten questions I sent them on 18 January, and the public has had sufficient time to assess for itself whether the appropriate steps are being taken. This includes the expectation that they will publicly release the results of the further asbestos testing recommended by their own audit, as well as the demolition contractor's asbestos control plan – preferably in accessible electronic form on the web, but also as printed copies by request.

Also relating to the ten key questions, there was broad agreement at the meeting that no asbestos should be left in the buildings by the time they are demolished. With so many children present, and regular visitors to the park well represented, there was naturally a concern about preventing even supposedly 'low level' residual contamination of the playground. It was here noted that many asbestos advocates consider there is no safe level of asbestos exposure.

Flowing on from this, there was also a concern that there had been little communication dealing with what will happen with the park over the span of demolition works (11 March–24 April). Will use of the park be restricted or regulated? Just how will it be affected? One further thought that occurs to me as I write is also the traffic from trucks to the site, given the narrow roads and the proximity of the playground.

I guess what we'd all be hoping for is management of the site to the level that Fiona Richardson would be happy to bring her own kids to play there during the process – not at a carefully stage-managed moment, but when everything is in full swing.

As we discussed at the meeting, the next step is to get a message off to Richardson, and/or Wynne. To this end, I've drafted a sample letter you might use (to Richardson), which reflects a summary of the concerns we spoke about today. You could either post your letter (the address of her electoral office has been included), or email it to Richardson via You could even follow up with a call to her electoral office on 9481 5777.

If you'd like to go further, you could edit the letter and send it to housing minister, Richard Wynne, email him on and follow up with a call to 9906 7722.

The main thing is to follow up on the positive discussion we had today. If you have friends who are concerned but couldn't come today, please encourage them to to edit the letter provided to express their own concerns. In fact I'd encourage everyone to add their own personal flourishes before they send their letters off – it's up to you. If you have any questions at all about how to proceed, please call me on 0404 526 555 or email me.

While I'm at it, I may as well provide the media release that went out today, and the speaking notes that guided my presentation, even if they did not capture it word for word. Richardson et al would do well to consider these in their future communications. I really think they owe us a much more comprehensive flyer than their 20 February effort, and a public meeting to go through the issues wouldn't go astray – in the meantime, of course, the works should stop.

Finally, I'll update this blog with the latest from WorkSafe Victoria, which is now following up on aspects of the demolition. In the meantime, citizen journalists out there might like to capture the arrival of the demolition contractor's trucks and early movements on the site – preparations were due to begin last Monday. One never knows when the footage might come in useful.

For further background, have a read of the last few posts, below. If there are any questions, feel free to leave a comment using the link to this post, give me a call, or send an email.

Cheers, Darren

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Come to the park for a public meeting about asbestos

Local residents and visitors to the playground at Baden Morgan Reserve at Roberts Street Northcote are invited to a public meeting there starting at 4.30pm this Wednesday 5 March. The meeting will discuss safety concerns about the management of asbestos during the demolition of the adjacent Roberts Street public housing estate.

Asbestos removal will begin next Tuesday 11 March with key questions still to be answered by the government about the safe management of asbestos on the site during the demolition of the derelict estate (see post below).

In addition to questions about testing and asbestos control measures, the meeting will discuss the absence of any information about how the adjacent park and children's playground will be protected from residual contamination.

At the meeting I will be explaining the issues and unanswered questions that arise directly from the Office of Housing's own documents. I will also be calling for a postponement of the works until adequate information has been released and sufficient time has been allowed to consider its implications for public health and safety.

So please come along. With one week until the works begin, this is the community's last chance to achieve a safer outcome. If you have children, please bring them – it may the last time you'll feel comfortable letting them play on the swings.

For further background, see these earlier posts:

Money for birthday junk mail, but not for asbestos disclosure
Demo safe for Northcote families?
A quick tour of Roberts Street
Top ten questions about asbestos at Roberts Street
Tender fiasco a telling error
Thousands for minister's PR visit to asbestos site

No answers one week from asbestos demo

The Office of Housing has finally published the demolition schedule for its asbestos-contaminated Roberts Street Northcote public housing estate. Unfortunately, the schedule gives the community little more than a week's notice before the works begin without key questions having been answered about the safe management of asbestos on the site.

'Site establishment' was to begin yesterday, with removal of asbestos set to start on Tuesday 11 March. The demolition works are then slated for completion by Monday 24 April.

Recent communications from the Office of Housing – a letter and 20 February flyer that appear to be their final word – have failed to answer critical questions about further testing recommended by their own audit, the demolition contractor's asbestos control plan, and the incomplete removal of asbestos before the buildings are knocked down. These questions were the most important of ten key questions sent to Northcote MP Fiona Richardson and housing minister Richard Wynne on 18 January.

At this late hour, even if this information were to be released, the timeframe would not allow sufficient public scrutiny to occur before the works begin. It therefore appears to be the strategy of the State government to provide only a minimum of information at the latest possible moment to limit the opportunity for public action.

With the release of the schedule late on Friday 29 February, a number of pages on the redevelopment website were taken down. These related to the consultation process, the community advisory committee chaired by Northcote MP Fiona Richardson and the newsletter page. No doubt they were an embarrassment to the government, having been last updated in September last year.

Stay tuned for further news, as the community is not going to take this lying down. In the meantime, why not ring Richardson on 9481 5777 or email You could also ring housing minister Richard Wynne on 9096 7722 or email him at

It's important to demand that demolition works, including asbestos removal, be postponed until the ten key questions have been properly answered and sufficient time has been allowed to scrutinise the responses, together with the contractor's asbestos control plan and the results of any further testing that may have been undertaken. In the absence of transparency, the community is justified in questioning the government's bland and vague assurances that so-called best practice will be followed. Don't let them get away with it.