Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Office of Saying Nothing

That's my proposed name-change for the Office of Housing following the news on its Roberts Street redevelopment website today that demolition works proper That's right, the buildings are now being knocked down with zero days' notice from the Housing website.

To this our bureaucratic champion of public disclosure added the late-breaking 'news' that asbestos removal concluded... Tuesday last week (8 April), with air-monitoring supposedly showing we have nothing to worry about – despite the strong likelihood that official results will never be released, and that we won't be told what sampling arrangements were in place.

Nor, it seems, can we expect that the results of the further testing recommended by Housing's own audit will be made available any time soon.

In fact, Housing would not even respond to an email to asking them who is the official keeper of air-monitoring and testing results, so that those seeking the information through freedom of information laws might know who to ask without being given the bureaucratic run-around.

Instead, the Office of Housing has devoted itself to saying as little as possible at the last possible moment. Here's a snapshot of the update published today, and here's a snapshot from Google showing the last previous update. It shows definitively that 8 April was the last time the site was updated, at which stage there was no mention of the completion of asbestos removal on that very day, nor of the start of demolition being scheduled for today. The inescapable conclusion is that these useful snippets were unequivocally added only today – what a great effort!

If the Office of Housing wins the gold medal in keeping the lid on public interest information, then with them on the podium is WorkSafe. The so-called safety watchdog – seemingly so responsive until the hard questions began to be asked – still hasn't come clean on any directions it gave on site on Wednesday 2 April, a day of record winds, and also a day on which Housing was happy to have asbestos removal works proceed.

As noted previously, we've had the line that the works were undertaken inside, but WorkSafe still hasn't answered questions about the steps it took to ensure that 'inside' didn't mean inside any of the units with broken windows or no window frames at all. That some of the units were clearly in this condition is shown in YouTube video I know WorkSafe has viewed, and yet it doesn't think we deserve a response. A senior officer of WorkSafe's Preston office admitted on the phone on 2 April that asbestos removal works finished early on that day, even that it was likely because of the wind. Did WorkSafe direct or advise that works finish early? If so, what of Housing's decision to even start?

The only thing saving the Office of Housing from major embarrassment on this project is the lack of media willing to devote the resources to look into it. Our local media – with the exception of the public-interest-oriented Radio 3CR – have shown themselves lacking in this regard, while the larger media have many issues pressing for attention.

That's not to say that what gets media coverage equates with what needs it in the public interest, and therein lies the problem. Until that equation becomes more balanced, bureaucracies like Housing will ignore issues on which they feel immune from media exposure. That is to say, they will ignore you – even when it comes to valid concerns over asbestos in a 47-unit public housing redevelopment.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

WorkSafe yet to respond on asbestos video

WorkSafe, a division of the Victorian WorkCover Authority, is yet to respond to questions asked last week surrounding film of asbestos workers on a public housing redevelopment site on Wednesday 2 April, a day of extreme winds in Melbourne.

On that day, asbestos removal began at the derelict Roberts Street Northcote estate, with workers filmed on-site in full protective gear, including half-face respirators.

Following a report to WorkSafe's advisory line at about 9.30am, advice received from WorkSafe late in the afternoon indicated that a morning inspection sometime after the filming found that works were proceeding 'in accordance with regulations'. Worksafe also advised that regulations permitted asbestos removal inside on such days. Works did, however, finish around midday (earlier, according to one resident), with the watchdog saying this was likely because of the wind.

The as-yet-unanswered questions arise because the film of workers on-site on 2 April taken together with an earlier film of the estate cast doubt on whether asbestos removal inside actually meant inside units with smashed windows and, in at least one case, no window frame at all. What WorkSafe has so far failed to answer is whether any asbestos removal work on 2 April took place in units open to the outside extreme wind conditions in this way. Was this question even asked on the morning of its own inspection? Did it in fact order or advise that the works be stopped because of the wind?

Queries about the film were sent to a number of senior WorkSafe officers, including WorkSafe Executive Director, John Merritt. A written response was requested, given that WorkSafe was clearly aware of community concerns about asbestos safety with this project because it had attended a public meeting on 28 March in the adjacent park.

Since the minister for housing, Richard Wynne, the Office of Housing, and Northcote MP Fiona Richardson have all been touting the asbestos safety measures for the project, it is beholden on WorkSafe to hold the government to account and prove it is not a toothless tiger when it comes to asbestos safety. It should answer the questions posed by the two videos, and come clean about what questions were asked and what action was taken during its inspection on Wednesday 2 April at Roberts Street Northcote.

The films about asbestos at the Roberts Street estate are available at:

Roberts Street web 'updates' way too late

The Office of Housing continued its retrospective website 'updates' tonight (8 April) by telling us for the first time online that asbestos removal works began on the Roberts Street Northcote public housing estate on Wednesday 2 April (a day of horrendous winds, as many people will recall, but then the works were said to be inside – more follow-up on that very soon).

Well, to set the record straight, here's a PDF of what the Roberts Street redevelopment website looked like only yesterday morning. This shows that, at that stage, the website had last been updated on 2 April, and was still advising on 7 April – five days after the actual start of asbestos removal – that the works had been delayed and a start date would be advised.

Sorry guys, but you can't inform people in advance retrospectively – especially when your public disclosure is so generally poor and people relied on your website for information they needed to have before the works began. I have another PDF showing the site just this morning in a similar state of outdatedness, and will upload that soon.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Housing continues its slack public disclosure

You wouldn't know from the Office of Housing's Roberts Street website that asbestos removal works started on the site yesterday. As of about 6.00pm tonight, the site still showed that works had been delayed, even though they'd updated the site yesterday to put the control plan up. The bureaucrats may just be slow, but for community members who have only recently become aware of the issue, a Google search will deliver the site as the top search result and they will consequently be misled about what's going on in their local neighbourhood.

Slow web updates aside, what you also can't expect from the Office of Housing, housing minister, Richard Wynne, and Northcote MP Fiona Richardson is any kind of explanation about why they directed or were prepared to allow works to proceed on such a windy day. I have sent WorkSafe a link to my video taken in yesterday's extreme conditions and have requested their response to the issues I believe it raises. At the very least, the video provides quite reasonable grounds for concern and valid questions in the public interest.

Add to that the start of the works just days after the government's only public meeting on asbestos safety in the project, the lack of any commitment to release the results of further testing, let alone the results of air monitoring (including for yesterday), and you can clearly see that the poor public disclosure on this project results in as few people as possible becoming fully informed about what is going on.

The good news is that the YouTube videos made of the site are reaching a few people courtesy of this blog (55 views for the first video and 13 for the second as of this writing). To see an update on viewer numbers, have a look at my YouTube video profile page Viewers who happen to find the videos independently at YouTube are also directed to further information on this site and to my email to ensure they have the full details, can ask questions, or leave comments – whether they agree with me or not. How long will it take Housing to get its far better resourced website up-to-date?

As usual, questions, comments and debate are most welcome.

Roberts Street asbestos removal on film

As promised, here's a short YouTube video of asbestos-related activities at the Roberts Street Northcote public housing estate covering from Monday to yesterday morning. I speak to the workers from outside the safety cordon towards the end of the clip.

To play the video, hit the triangular button at the bottom of the embedded video, or view it directly at the YouTube site.

To read about my dealings with the Office of Housing, WorkSafe et al during the day, please read the previous post, 'WorkSafe visits a very windy Roberts Street'.

Comments and email are most welcome.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

WorkSafe visits a very windy Roberts Street

Having reported the asbestos works at Roberts Street in today's windy conditions to WorkSafe around 9.30am this morning, as 4.00pm approached I decided to follow up, given there had been no phone response on the mobile number I left with them.

Instead of again calling the advisory line, I decided to call Steve Peters, a senior WorkSafe officer from the Preston office who had attended last Friday's public meeting and provided useful information.

Steve said a WorkSafe inspector had attended the site later this morning following my visit to the site between 8.45 and 9.15am. He advised that, while WorkSafe was bound by privacy provisions, and the inspection was between WorkSafe and the company, the inspector had found works proceeding in accordance with regulations. He added that works stopped at lunch and agreed this was likely because of the wind. Steve further advised that asbestos removal proceeding inside would not be a problem on a windy day.

Soon I will post YouTube footage taken on-site over three days, including the start of works today (the likely start advised by workers yesterday did not pan out, for whatever reason). The footage raises questions worthy of further investigation in that hammering noises on the footage appear loud enough to be external to the flats, window frames (and quite possibly doors) are missing on some units, and workmen in full protective gear were filmed with a ladder on one of the upper-level walkways visible from the High Street frontage.

While the time of WorkSafe's visit has not been confirmed, it seems to me that between my visit and theirs, there was plenty of scope for works to proceed that were quite arguably inappropriate given the conditions. The point I made to Steve in our discussion this afternoon was that, on its face, the circumstance of asbestos removal proceeding on a day of very high winds was at the very least concerning.

I hope the Office of Housing, in particular, appreciates this perspective – especially given the demonstrable lack of disclosure about asbestos on the site and the closeness of the start of the works to its only public meeting on the issue last Friday.

The 6.10pm response from Housing's Ed David to the 10.56am email to Steve on which Ed was copied was simply: 'Noted. WorkSafe have been in discussion with us. It is under control.' In fairness, I had earlier alerted Ed by phone and he had said an inspector would be sent out there. However, one is justified in asking what is under control? – hopefully it's the asbestos management on site. Of course, so-called 'privacy' means we are unlikely to find out what actually took place on-site, let alone in Housing's 'discussion' with WorkSafe.

Needless to say, there has as yet been no response from Richardson and Wynne on this issue, despite contact with their offices this morning by phone and email – unsurprising, really.

Finally, this post was significantly delayed by my phone service being interrupted this afternoon. What can I say? It was just too windy.

Asbestos workers at Roberts St today

An asbestos worker at Roberts Street, with a ladder clearly visible to the right, on the balcony of the flats.
Asbestos removal at the Roberts Street Northcote public housing estate was proceeding this morning despite windy conditions on a day of predicted very high winds in Melbourne.

Men in protective asbestos masks and clothing were clearly visible from the High Street frontage of the estate, and were spoken to on film about proceeding with the works given the conditions.

Ed David, Director of Asset Management and Property Services with the Office of Housing (9096 5331), advised by phone that the works were taking place inside the flats, but the sounds of levering and hammering were clearly audible, and the photo clearly shows a ladder set up on the front balcony (facing High Street).

An asbestos dust hazard tape was also clearly visible around the site, providing a very narrow margin particularly on the High Street frontage, where pedestrians were walking.

WorkSafe and the Office of Housing were this morning both notified of the works starting, but Housing, which is administering the works, had earlier been advised by a resident email of the inappropriateness of starting works today given the predicted high winds.

An asbestos control plan for the site, promised to be published online at 8.00am this morning, was published hours after the commencement of the works, with the site noting the plan had been submitted to WorkSafe Victoria. Interestingly, the control plan was signed on 20 March, more than a week before the Office of Housing advised at a public meeting that it could not yet be made available because it was not yet in its 'final form'.

A quick look at the document reveals that it is a tick-the-box affair of only three pages – hardly the anticipated reassurance that asbestos issues identified in the audit are being adequately addressed.

As noted in previous posts, there is widespread public concern that these works are proceeding before valid community concerns about asbestos have been answered.

The start of the works follows the required notification to WorkSafe on Friday, and a public meeting in the neighbouring park convened by the Office of Housing and Northcote MP Fiona Richardson (9481 5777) at 6.00pm the same day. The works follow by only days what was the first government public meeting on this issue, despite the fact that the presence of asbestos has been known since at least mid-October 2007, when Housing had an asbestos audit performed.

Richardson and housing minister Richard Wynne (9096 7722) have also been notified by phone and email that the works are taking place today in windy conditions, and have been asked to pursue the matter.

Asbestos workers at Roberts Street today
The circumstances observed today at Roberts Street are concerning and at the very least call for some prompt answers from the relevant authorities. Responses received from Richardson, Wynne, WorkSafe and the Office of Housing will be reported here.

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.