Intriguing statements from Huon Valley Council appeared in the Huon Valley News on Wednesday (December 9), the day of the council’s monthly meeting and annual general meeting. Under a straphead ‘Important information for residents’, the first item was ‘Franklin Pumphouse – The Facts’, the second ‘All clear on asbestos concerns’. Each had the tagline ‘Huon Valley Council Press Release’.
Each in its own way had the hallmarks of the kind of things a naughty schoolboy might find himself saying after once again being caught up to no good.
The pumphouse item, largely quoting the council’s Franklin Township Development Committee chairman Councillor Mike Wilson, appealed for community “patience and understanding” about the “proposal to construct a pumphouse” directly across the road from the town’s iconic Palais building.
Cr Wilson is reported as expressing “concern over the level of misinformation circulating in the community over the proposal”. This comment is followed by seven observations by the same councillor.
— The first says the council “received a request in November to relinquish a small section of its lease on the Franklin Foreshore in favour of Southern Water”. This may well be a fact. A fact that the press release does not offer is that at least some Franklin residents have been aware since early this year that there were plans for a pumphouse on the foreshore. Because a pumphouse does not float in the air, obviously land would have to be found to build it on. Where was the council’s much-vaunted “consultation and communication” policy during this period?
— The second comment says the “request was at very short notice as Southern Water had an immediate deadline to sign a funding agreement with the Australian Government”. That may be so, but again the question of “consultation and communication” arises about a situation that a council on the ball should have anticipated and prepared the community for months before.
— The third point observes that the proposed site for the pumphouse was selected “due to its position in relation to the channel separating the Egg Islands” in the Huon River, through which, it seems, is where Southern Water intends to run a pipeline to the eastern side of the river along which water, eventually, is to be pumped to Cygnet. Councillor Wilson observes that the channel route for the pipeline was chosen “as it will mean minimal impact to the Egg Island Conservation Area”. It will be interesting to see what the not-for-profit Tasmanian Land Conservancy, owner of the sort-of-protected Egg Islands, will have to say about that.
— The fourth point says the “new pipeline will help ensure Cygnet residents enjoy a secure, stable water supply”. Cygnet already has a more than adequate pristine mountain water supply from a catchment with no human habitation — but that’s a story for another day.
— The fifth point says, “due to the tight deadline”, the council “did not have sufficient time to fully consult the community”. If council had been awake to itself, the consultation and communication required for the scheme Southern Water is now working towards putting into effect could all have been done when the scheme was the council’s intellectual property. Earlier this year, the council handed the scheme, about 15 of its staff and scores of millions of dollars’ worth of water infrastructure over to Southern Water under the State Government’s sloppily organised program to rationalise the state’s water and sewerage infrastructure.
— The sixth point reports that Southern Water “has engaged a consultant who will undertake the consultation with the local community”. This conveniently ignores the fact that all of this consultation should have been conducted with the local community months, perhaps more than a year ago, when the council was still drawing up its own water scheme.
— The seventh observation, which gets an asterisk rather than a bullet point, is very revealing. It says, in part, that the “upgrade to the . . . water and sewerage network has been a major objective” of the council “for a number of years”. If that is so, why has the community, municipality-wide, been left so in the dark about what the council was planning and what Southern Water (still very much an embryo organisation, already staggering through management adjustments and formation problems) is now working towards implementing?
So much for Franklin’s pumphouse and Egg Island issues. A smaller issue that could end up with even bigger implications for the council has come to light through the second press release in this week’s Huon Valley News.
It is all about asbestos.
Almost out of the blue — and more than nine months after Franklin was shocked by the dawn arrival of a police-protected demolition team that pushed, shoved and carted away the football clubrooms at the Franklin Oval at such a speed that by the end of the day there was almost nothing to indicate that a lovely old building had ever existed — has come a statement from council “to allay community concerns over suggestions of an asbestos contamination”.
The council statement says that, “following the discovery of small fragments thought to be asbestos”, the council “commissioned a health and safety consultant to conduct an evaluation and risk assessment of the site”.
The council assures the Franklin community that the consultant’s report indicates that “the risk to the public’s health is very low” and that the “asbestos fibres are fixed in a matrix of cement and are not airborne”. Then the report says, “the concentration of airborne asbestos fibres is virtually negligible”. So the “small fragments” that the council says were “thought to be asbestos” were, in fact, asbestos.
The council, in its statement, says that “control measures should be implemented given the site is to be used as a public facility”.
It also says it will be giving copies of the consultant’s report to the Franklin Township Development Committee and the Franklin Progress Association.
The next meeting of the development committee (a creation of the council) is tomorrow at 10am (Friday, December 11). It would be surprising if both the water and asbestos issues do not come up for discussion.
On the pumphouse and pipeline, questions might concentrate on why Franklin’s already less-than-charming foreshore should be burdened with an unsightly and huge pumphouse (3 metres high, 11 metres long and 6 metres wide) and whether (in these times of straitened finances and council’s having lost up to $4 million in an exotic investment) the pipeline needs to be laid across the channel.
On the asbestos issue, questions might be along these lines:
— Was the building ascertained to be asbestos-free before it was demolished in such a rough-and-ready manner?
— Where now is the wreckage of the clubrooms and what is being done to ensure the possible asbestos presence in the wreckage is being stabilised?
(No one I have spoken to seems to know exactly where the debris was taken. Some suggest it “went south”. Before the surprise demolition, council announced that the building would be carefully dismantled and useful materials in it would be recycled. All that changed when resistance in the town began to emerge after its demolition was approved at last February’s council meeting. The demolition occurred when progress association member Shane Johnson was collecting signatures on a petition to ask the council to consider retention of the building.)
— Did the council issue its statement this week because it fears it could face prosecution for demolishing a structure without exercising the precautions necessary when dealing with asbestos?
— Could those who gathered to watch the demolition last February, and the contractors hired to carry out the demolition, have cause to sue council for possible harm to their physical health and psychological well-being?
These are valid questions. But if Wednesday night’s annual general meeting of the council is any indication, the community, as usual, will meekly accept the council’s reassurances. Only a couple of questions (not related to either of these issues) were asked and the AGM lasted not much more than a quarter of an hour. What is it that makes electors of the Huon Valley hold their peace when they should be out there forcing the council to justify its actions? Some say it stems from old fears; others that it is pure apathy.
New council general manager Glenn Doyle has shown a refreshing willingness to bring an uncharacteristic transparency to council’s performance. That doesn’t mean to say the public should not be asking probing questions.
— Bob Hawkins is a Huon Valley ratepayer and an advocate for transparency in all democratic institutions. He is not a member of any political organisation.