POLL: Asbestos hotspot for NBN

ASBESTOS is set to affect the national broadband network in the Hunter Region, with older areas of Maitland and Mayfield in the middle of their cable roll outs.

With the NBN-Telstra asbestos controversy dominating debate in federal Parliament on Tuesday, Hunter Labor MPs have moved to reassure residents while Liberal Bob Baldwin says the government is putting workers and residents alike at risk.

“There are serious questions the government needs to answer about asbestos and its NBN,’’ Mr Baldwin said.

‘‘The community is only being informed about these hazards now, even though Labor has known its plan involves contamination risks since 2009.’’

The NBN Co maps show cables are being rolled out in older areas of Maitland and Mayfield, and also in new developments at Murrays Beach, south of Swansea, and at Morisset Meadows, west of Lake Macquarie.

Roll outs through new areas are thought unlikely to encounter asbestos problems.

The union covering Telstra workers, the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union, said it warned Telstra and the NBN Co  four years ago  the asbestos-cement used to make almost all of Telstra’s underground infrastructure before the mid-1980s meant asbestos was a major problem from the start.

The number of Telstra pits alone is put at five million to eight million.

Allen Hicks, a senior CEPU figure who has worked closely on the NBN, said NBN Co and Telstra had plans to deal with the asbestos but these had not been carried out properly because of the ‘‘chain of subcontractors’’ used to install the cables.

It was impossible to assess the risk to workers and residents at this stage.

But Telstra workers had higher than average rates of mesothelioma and the union had found ‘‘hotspots’’ of disease around some older Telstra depots.

In Parliament, Labor and the Coalition argued claims  Telstra knew as far back as 2001  it had an asbestos problem.

Labor claimed Telstra had wanted to speed up compensation arrangements for asbestos-affected employees, but  the Howard government rejected the plan.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard maintained her stance that Telstra was responsible but the Coalition said the government, as architect of the $37billion NBN, bore ultimate responsibility.

Hunter Labor MPs said there were no shortcuts with asbestos.

Ticking time bomb

AS a specialist in asbestos cases, Newcastle solicitor Gerard McMahon knows all too well the tragic impact of asbestos on people’s lives.

‘‘I was involved recently in a Telstra worker’s asbestos case, but he died before we could settle, meaning I will finish the case for his widow, ’’ Mr McMahon said yesterday.

A partner with law firm Turner Freeman, Mr McMahon said he was shocked to see the national broadband network layout unravel the way it had.

He said Australia had one of the world’s highest rates of asbestos-related disease, largely because asbestos was mined in Australia and widely used in a range of building and engineering products.

The average time lag of 35years for symptoms to show meant asbestos remained ‘‘a ticking time bomb’’.  Despite the publicity given to asbestos, Mr McMahon believed many people remained unaware of how widespread it was, especially in housing.

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