Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Front page The OZ: NBN asbestos scare spreads as Labor blames Telstra

NBN asbestos scare spreads as Labor blames Telstra

LABOR is fighting off new safety fears over its National Broadband Network as more cases of asbestos exposure during its construction fuel a growing political brawl over the management and cost of the $37.4 billion project.
The health risks spread to all mainland states yesterday after the Queensland safety regulator revealed three new incidents and federal authority Comcare warned of an "alarming" spate of asbestos safety breaches by contractors.
While Labor sought to blame Telstra for the failures, the Coalition declared the government and its agency, NBN Co, bore ultimate responsibility for managing the risk to public health.
An emergency meeting in Canberra yesterday confirmed the scale of the problem as NBN contractors rebuild many of the eight million pits on the Telstra network, of which 10 to 20 per cent contain asbestos.
Workplace Minister Bill Shorten emerged from a meeting with Telstra chief executive David Thodey and NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley and others to announce a national register of network asbestos incidents and a taskforce to oversee safety checks.
The political fight turned personal in parliament as Julia Gillard accused Tony Abbott of insulting asbestos campaigner Bernie Banton and Mr Shorten faced questions over whether he did enough to prepare for the NBN safety challenges when letters revealed he had known of the asbestos problems four years ago.
The Queensland government yesterday confirmed the state regulator had found "serious breaches" of workplace safety at three NBN rollout sites, including one instance where a high pressure water hose was used to clean a communications pit containing asbestos.
The cases - in the central Queensland city of Mackay and the northside Brisbane suburbs of Banyo and Carseldine - added to asbestos exposures at several pits in the western Sydney suburb of Penrith and poor asbestos handling at Victoria Park in Perth and Seaford in South Australia.
Comcare said it was actively investigating claims of the improper dumping of asbestos in Ballarat in regional Victoria and had put a Tasmanian contractor on notice for poor standards in training requirements and safety gear.
The federal regulator's chief executive, Paul O'Connor, told a Senate hearing yesterday that 20 incidents of asbestos mishandling at communications pits had been identified since January 1, after only 10 others in the years since 1996.
Mr O'Connor warned of "systemic issues with Telstra and NBN Co" and noted they had shared responsibility for health and safety.
"There can be the case where there is a project like this, the rollout of the National Broadband Network, that the head contractor NBN Co has accountabilities, as does Telstra as the owner of the telecommunications infrastructure, which as we know is legacy infrastructure and does include an amount of asbestos-containing material in communications throughout the country," he said.
Highlighting the health risks, an "operational directive" from NBN contractor Visionstream from September warned subcontractors to assume asbestos was present and not to use high-pressure water spray and compressed air on the materials.
The directive, obtained by The Australian, urges the construction teams to use rods and ropes to install optical fibre cable in the pits and ducts when replacing Telstra's old copper lines.
The government insisted it would reach its crucial NBN rollout targets by the September election and denied there was pressure on the project's $37.4bn budget, saying the remediation costs would be covered by Telstra.
Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said the safety incidents would not prevent the NBN reaching its latest rollout targets by June 30 or September 30, as he argued that Telstra had set aside $1bn to remediate its network. "So in terms of the costs to the NBN, there is no cost to the NBN of remediation by Telstra of its pits," Senator Conroy told reporters.
Telstra said when it sealed its alliance with the NBN Co that it would spend $900 million on "infrastructure and customer migration costs" as well as $600m in operational expenses on maintenance, but did not specify the outlay on asbestos removal.
Mr Turnbull said the government could not escape the ultimate responsibility for the health concerns and the increase in the project's costs. "The attempt to push this all off to Telstra is frankly a lawyer's argument," Mr Turnbull said. "The big issue here is the level of awareness of the government and the amount of attention it paid to this issue."
Mr Turnbull said the government had acted in the past week only after media attention on the asbestos exposure in Penrith.
While Telstra must remediate its pits to prepare them for the installation of fibre cable, NBN Co and its contractors can also work on the pits to "augment" them if needed.
The Australian understands that the definitive agreement between NBN Co and Telstra does not specify "augmentation" but makes it clear that NBN Co has the right to work on the infrastructure as long as it tells Telstra.
Mr Thodey said there were "hundreds of thousands" of pits to remediate over the life of the NBN. "Cost has got nothing to do with this issue, absolutely nothing. We will do what is right in terms of looking after our employees and the community," he said after the meeting in Canberra.
But he rejected talk of a mammoth legal liability for the company. "If there is anything to do with the financial implications we have a responsibility to our shareholders. We have already been very clear about that, there is nothing to be said at this point," he said.
Asked about any overlap between the Telstra and NBN Co responsibilities, Mr Thodey said there were "no questions asked" and that his company was responsible for the remediation. "We own the infrastructure, it is our responsibility, I do not resile from that in any way at all," he said.
Mr Shorten was yesterday challenged in parliament over three letters he wrote to Telstra showing he was aware of the asbestos risks in 2009. Mr Shorten asked Telstra in his 2009 letters to consider removing all its asbestos. Mr Thodey responded in December 2009 by saying a pro-active program to remove it was not justified at that point because of the cost, the risk of disturbing the material and the looming rollout of the NBN.
Mr Turnbull said he did not doubt Mr Shorten's genuine concern for workers but was "puzzled" about why the minister made no effort to follow up the matter once the NBN project was under way.
Mr Shorten said Telstra had not implemented the protocols and training in the way it promised it would. "Am I disappointed in Telstra? Yes I am," he said. "Having said that, I cannot fault David Thodey's leadership today."
Senator Conroy noted that Telstra had "put up its hand" to take full responsibility for its work but also expressed concern with NBN Co. "In a couple of areas that NBN Co have had specific work for, clearly the processes haven't been adhered to," he said. "That's disappointing and NBN Co have taken responsibility for those individual instances."

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