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Govt grapples with aging buildings

Saturday 24 February 2024 | Written by Al Williams | Published in Local, National


Govt grapples with aging buildings
The Cook Islands Investment Corporation crew who will be implementing asbestos removal at the Old Post Office building in Avarua from Monday. PHOTO: CIIC/24022340

While a $400,000 operation to rid the Old Post Office of asbestos in Avarua gets underway, questions remain around the ageing stock of government-controlled facilities on Rarotonga.

Cook Islands Investment Corporation project supervisor Ralph Adams was frank with Cook Islands News during a site visit on Thursday.

Adams said it boiled down to money, in terms of maintaining key infrastructure, such as buildings which house government employees.

“A large fortune would be ideal; we have for the last several years, put forward a proposal for a development.” 

Asbestos presented an “unacceptable risk” in July 2023 to Revenue Management Division and Customs staff housed in the building, forcing Ministry of Finance and Economic Management to close the Avarua office.

In October it was confirmed structural building integrity and asbestos issues at the Old Post Office had resulted in more than 50 staff members being relocated and the building being closed down.

Affected government staff are being accommodated at other premises including OPSC, Minister Albert Nicholas Support Office, CISNOC Office, Sports Arena VIP Lounge, Ports Cool Store, Police HQ, Airport Customs Office, and the Customs Ports Office.  

Elaborating on the development proposal, Adams pointed to a pre Covid-19 proposal to construct a $50 million plus centralised Government building.

The proposed facility has been 3D modelled and listed as an “upcoming milestone” in the Cook Islands Investment Corporation 2021-2025 Statement of Corporate Intent.

The Vaikapuangi Government Centre was the result of more than five years of design considerations and consultations.

The concept features a building that could accommodate around 500 workers from 20 plus government agencies and statutory entities in a flexible, adaptable and sustainable work environment. 

It is proposed the Government Centre be located in the heart of Rarotonga, in central Avarua in order to “deliver better service connections for the community and within government”. 

Adams said it was to be funded entirely by the Cook Islands, but, “any money from that was used in the (Covid-19) recovery process”.

“We don’t have money to progress, as much as we would like to; we do what we can.”

He said all buildings currently occupied by government could be freed up for private interests, specifically in Avarua, as nothing is available at present.  

That would be the case if the Vaikapuangi Government Centre development was to go ahead, he said.

On Friday, a spokesperson for CIIC confirmed the Vaikapuangi project was put on hold when the Covid-19 pandemic shut borders and impacted our economy.

“Internal discussions are still ongoing as to when this project will be revived. External funding sources have been explored since the project was put on hold but decisions are still pending. More work is planned for CIIC over the next 12 months to narrow down on the funding options and timing. Recent discussions indicate the project could get underway in the next 3-4 years, if not sooner.”

It was acknowledged Vaikapuangi is recognised as a “high priority for many reasons, one reason being that government has a large building portfolio and many are ageing”.

“Some buildings carry legacy issues such as asbestos. Many buildings existed before the Cook Islands Building Code and therefore do not comply with certain requirements. There are some areas of concern that would be impractical or unfeasible to address given the existing structure. For instance, installing an elevator in the three-storey building housing MFEM, MFAI and CI Audit Office.”
The spokesperson said due to budget constraints and the vast number of government buildings under CIIC responsibility, a prioritisation process is in place for buildings that will be decommissioned once the Vaikapuangi building is complete.

“CIIC is focusing on essential repairs or renovations that directly impact health and safety. The removal of the asbestos roof from the old Post Office Building/Customs house falls into this category.”

CIIC presented Cook Islands News with a list of works to be completed in the process of asbestos removal at the Old Post Office. 

Adams said he hopes to have a new roof on the facility and have it refurbished for government staff to move back into before May.

It’s no easy task, “a learning experience”, as he described it. The asbestos removal work gets underway on Monday.

Works to be completed:

  • Roofing nails and/or screws will be removed to avoid breaking the roofing. Spray nail holes and underside of roof.
  • Roofing panels will be lifted by hand and passed down. No roofing is to be thrown to the ground.
  • Exposed rood space to be vacuum cleaned and roof to be removed and replaced in sections.
  • Asbestos roofing stacked on pallets that are under laid with polythene then wrapped and taped closed securely. The whole pallet then shrink-wrapped to air-tight and ready for loading.
  •  Drums will be used for loose debris and soil. Drums to be sealed with polythene taped closed when full, then shrink-wrapped securely. Drums loaded and strapped onto pallets and secured. Shrink wrapped again, ready for loading, storage, and disposal. All overalls, gloves and used filters will also be placed in drums.
  • The wrapped and palletized roofing will be placed on a hiab truck and transported to the designated site located at the CIIC building. The drums used for PPE and other loose materials will be transported in the same way.
  • Materials to be loaded into shipping containers
  • All staff will be fitted with PPE certified for asbestos handling. These are disposable overalls, gloves, boot covers and masks. PPE to be placed/sealed in hazard bags when exiting the work area (for placement in drums for disposal) and a new set put on when returning to work. Exit protocols via dirty area containment to be followed.
  • No visitors will be allowed on site for the duration of the project.
  • After the roof is installed, the interior will be thoroughly cleaned. Vacuums fitted with asbestos filters will be used for the cleaning. The filters will be placed in the drums allocated for PPE, debris, and other loose items.
  • Loose aggregate area to be dug-up and loaded into drums for disposal.
  • All shrink-wrapping and polythene lining will be placed on pallets or in drums and shrink-wrapped to airtight. Materials to be stored with other asbestos contaminated materials.
  • Trained CIIC personnel will carry out air quality sampling during and post removal. These will be sent to K2 Environmental in New Zealand the following days for analysis. If the results are determined to be above normal/acceptable range, handling procedures will be reviewed for improvements.
  • Testing for clearance will be carried out prior to re-entry into building post roof replacement.