As the Australian government convenes crisis talks with Telstra and a number of other stakeholders over concerns about dangerous asbestos material discovered in Telstra infrastructure that is being overhauled as part of the National Broadband Network (NBN) rollout, the telco giant has moved to reassure the market that Telstra doesn't currently expect to face significant financial liability from asbestos claims.
Telstra CEO David Thodey said in a release to the Australian Stock Exchange that the company had been managing the risk of asbestos in its network for many years.
"Telstra has processes for managing claims of any type from employees and the public to ensure that such claims are handled sensitively and expeditiously. We take our responsibilities very seriously in looking after our employees and the community and our highest priority is their safety and peace of mind," he said.
"Should we form the view that there is a material financial risk to the company or any other material information that is required to be disclosed to the ASX under the Listing Rules, we will take immediate action to notify the market. We do not believe this to be the case at this time."
Thodey's comments came as Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten and Communications Minister Stephen Conroy convened stakeholders including Telstra, NBN Co, unions and asbestos victim groups to Canberra this morning for crisis talks around the discovery of asbestos in a number of pits across the country being overhauled to prepare for NBN infrastructure last week.
Shorten told Radio National this morning that the issue of Telstra's liability would not be the first priority of the meeting, which would focus on where the asbestos is located.
"We've asked Telstra to inform us what they think the prevalence of asbestos in communication pits. We've asked Telstra to also talk about what their plan is to deal with asbestos in their pits."
Shorten said that Telstra had yet to inform the government how many of the over 2 million Telstra pits contained asbestos, nor their plan for how to treat it.
He said that residents have requested information about 20 pits in the Western Sydney suburb of Penrith suspected of having asbestos in them so far.
The minister said that ultimately because Telstra owned the infrastructure, it was their responsibility, but the government needed to ensure that there were "no cowboys" in the subcontractors doing the work for Telstra.
Shorten has also suggested that a national asbestos exposure register should be set up for the public to report when they suspect they have been exposed to the deadly fibre.
"People shouldn't have to self-censor their concerns if they think there is an exposure issue," he said.
"It's very dis-empowering for residents and employees if they think they've been exposed to asbestos and just don't know."
Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull told AM this morning that NBN Co can't shift all the responsibility to Telstra.
"It is, of course, Telstra's primary responsibility, that's true. But NBN Co is planning to use those ducts," he said.
"What the Government has to do now is make it absolutely rock solid, rock solid assurance, that any work done for, or on behalf or connected with the NBN project, is going to be done in accordance with the highest standards."
Shorten and Conroy are expected to hold a press conference at 3:30pm AEST to discuss the outcome of the crisis talks.