MAC: Mines and Communities

Rio Tinto to be prosecuted for uranium disaster

Published by MAC on 2004-09-30

Rio Tinto to be prosecuted for uranium disaster

Occupational Health News Issue 612,

September 30, 2004

The Ranger Uranium Mine, operated by Energy Resources of Aust Ltd (ERA), a Rio Tinto subsidiary, will front Darwin Magistrates Court on October 11 to face landmark charges, which have been brought for the first time under the Northern Territory Mining Management Act 2001. The charges relate to 28 workers who showered in, and drank, water that was contaminated with levels of uranium 400 times the safe maximum under Australian standards (OHN 587). The NT Dept of Business, Industry and Resource Development (DBIRD) launched the prosecution this week. "There are two counts. The first is under s39 and carries a maximum penalty of $137,500 and the second is under s23(5) and carries a maximum penalty of $27,500," a DBIRD spokesperson said.

According to a DBIRD report, 159 workers were potentially exposed to contaminated water. A report by the Federal Dept of Environment and Heritage supervising scientist Dr Arthur Johnstone concluded it was "most unlikely" there would be long-term health effects on target organs, such as brain, liver and kidneys, because of the "brief exposure to the contaminated water". A spokesperson for ERA was unable to say how the company would plead to the charges, but confirmed ERA had no prior convictions under NT or Commonwealth OHS legislation. "We have been involved in some very serious talks with federal industry minister Ian Macfarlane and have complied with the first of three audits related to the incident, and which we passed two weeks ago," she said.

"We will be complying with two other audits on Oct 31 and Dec 31. We have taken a great many steps to rectify the problem and a full suite of testing has been offered to anyone who requires it. So far, more than 20 people have come forward." Didge McDonald, of the NT Trades and Labour Council, claimed the new Act had failed to help improve OHS because it was based on self-regulation.

"It's failing left, right and centre in the mining industry up here, and pretty spectacularly in relation to the Ranger mine," McDonald told OccupationalHelth and Safety News. "The level of fines is totally inadequate. They are not a deterrent. We have had discussions with the government and are putting together a submission for a review of the 2001 Act to bring it in line with national standards." McDonald confirmed four contract fitters from WA had issued civil claims after being exposed.

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