Quake risk could close public buildings

MATT STEWART, TOM HUNT AND MICHAEL FORBES
Last updated 05:00 02/12/2011

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Hundreds of government buildings are at risk of being shut down and vacated as emergency seismic assessments reveal their earthquake risk.

As the Justice Ministry moves to close six court buildings for up to 12 months, The Dominion Post can reveal that at least 674 other government buildings are being investigated for seismic weakness.

This does not include schools, of which 40 in Wellington city alone have been deemed potentially earthquake-prone or are under investigation by the council.

As engineers' reports trickle in, organisations are wrestling with tough decisions: whether to allow staff and pupils to use the buildings – possibly putting safety at risk – or close them until strengthening work is complete.

At Masterton's district courthouse yesterday, staff were in tears as they learned their workplace would be inaccessible for up to a year.

An Opus engineering report deemed the 103-year-old building high risk, with collapse likely in the event of a quake – along with other court buildings in Feilding, Upper Hutt, Rangiora, Oamaru and Balclutha.

Meanwhile, South Wellington Intermediate School's board of trustees has chosen to keep the school open while strengthening work on its main block is undertaken by the Education Ministry.

It means some pupils may have to study in earthquake-prone classrooms next year.

But the buildings could yet be the tip of the iceberg, with police yesterday confirming they are in the process of investigating 374 police stations for seismic weakness.

The Social Development Ministry says it has worked with structural engineers to review its estimated 300 buildings.

"We have identified a number of buildings that merit further investigation and our engineers are now undertaking detailed structural reviews," a spokeswoman said.

"This is being undertaken as a precaution only and at this stage we have no reason to believe that any of our buildings pose a risk to safety."

A Health Ministry spokesman said all its buildings met requirements – however, that did not necessarily include hospitals, which were run by district health boards.

Justice Ministry spokesman Steve Corbett said staff were told of court buildings closures on Wednesday afternoon – about 24 hours after the Opus report was received.

Staff were given three days' paid leave, with longer-term decisions over their jobs still to be made, he said. Mr Corbett could not rule out redundancies.

He defended the haste at which the ministry closed the buildings, saying it was "prudent" to act immediately to ensure people's safety. "We chose to act. If we had taken a couple of weeks to think about it, and something had happened in that time, that would be unacceptable."

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All 92 of the ministry's buildings were assessed by Opus. Ten came back as "high risk" and the ministry opted to close six.

Discussions were being held with local councils and police about setting up alternative venues for the closed courthouses.

But the snap move caught lawyers, judges and court staff off guard, leading to confusion.

A makeshift courtroom was set up at Masterton Police Station yesterday morning to deal with about 30 appearances.

All court cases in Masterton have been adjourned until next year, with the ministry saying it was not "fair and reasonable" to expect people to travel to Wellington.

But defendants remanded in custody in Wairarapa could now face Christmas in prison, to the disgust of civil liberties lawyer Michael Bott.

"It's concerning people presumed innocent are going to be remanded in custody because the state doesn't have facilities [to deal with them]. The other thing, of course, is the old saying, `justice delayed is justice denied'."

Law Society Courts and Tribunals Committee Wellington convener Paul Michalik described the decision to shut the courthouse as "an unjustifiable over-reaction".

For years the courthouse had functioned safely and the ministry should have kept it open for a couple of weeks until a temporary location could be found, he said.

"It seems extraordinary they would close courts without having these things set up."

- The Dominion Post

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