Uranium drinkers say mine cut them loosePublished by MAC on 2004-04-05
Uranium drinkers say mine cut them loose
Sydney Morning Herald, by Lindsay Murdoch in Darwin
5 April 04
Australia's biggest uranium miner has gone into damage control 12 days after workers drank large quantities of water containing 400 times the legal limit of uranium following a leak at the Ranger mine in Kakadu National Park.
Three of the men say they have been suffering from vomiting, diarrhoea and lethargy and were forced to pay their own way to leave the Northern Territory to seek medical treatment in their home state.
The Ranger mine, a subsidiary of the British giant Rio Tinto, has now flown a doctor from England to examine 12 workers who drank or showered in water used for processing uranium ore.
But one of the workers, Paul McDonald, told the Herald the doctor had told him he "basically cannot let me know I will be OK. He really doesn't know himself".
The workers say that the mine owner, Energy Resources of Australia Ltd, initially refused to pay for their air fares home and had said any medical expenses would have to be channelled through their direct employer, Power Station and Marine Services.
However, ERA has now compensated one worker for his fare and a spokeswoman said yesterday that information, support and counselling, including specialist medical information, is being provided for affected workers. Ben Newton, 28, who received $400 for his fare, said: "You can call it a bribe or whatever. But I can't just sit at home stewing. I have to get on with my life. And I don't want to be put on a work black list."
The ERA spokeswoman confirmed that the leak happened when a pipe containing contaminated water was wrongly fitted to a drinking water pipe. The workers drank the tainted water nine hours after the leak of 150,000 litres of contaminated water at the mine. The mine managers had failed to tell the workers about the leak before they each drank three to four litres. Speaking publicly for the first time about the leak that closed operations at the long-troubled mine, three of the workers said Ranger's only action in the days immediately afterwards was to send them off the site.
They say ERA failed in the days after the leak to provide them with basic information about the level of contamination or advice on what they should do. "What has happened to us is disgusting," Mr McDonald said. "We are sick but trying to carry on with our lives. But the implications for our future health scares the living daylights out of me."
Michael Whiteman, 28, who has suffered a sore throat, headaches, diarrhoea and lethargy, said the hardest part was the stress of not knowing what will happen to his health.
"You feel like a weirdo going to a doctor saying I have drunk uranium. You can imagine what it is like. And none of the doctors can give us answers because as far as I am aware nobody in the world has drunk this much of the stuff before."
The ERA spokeswoman declined to comment on the men's claims, saying "we understand some people have sought legal advice" and that three inquiries were still underway.
ERA has said publicly that the leak occurred about 10.30pm on March 23. Later, staff coming off night shift had noticed poor water quality while showering, it said on March 24.
But Mr McDonald said that he and his workmates drank what they now know to be contaminated water at a drinking fountain inside the powerhouse during a break between 7.15am and 7.45am on March 24.
Mr McDonald said that soon after they had drunk the water Ranger called a meeting of workers and told them the mine was closing because of the leak. "There is no doubt they knew about the contamination when we drank the water," he said. "We know that because ice machines had been emptied because we had been told they had been contaminated. But nobody told us the water had been contaminated before we drank from a fountain inside the powerhouse."
Mr McDonald said the first he and his workmates had learnt that the water was contaminated was when they read a report in a newspaper on March 25. "I felt a bit sick when I drank the water, which was an unusual whitish colour. But I put that down to the change of climate and the heat."
The men are waiting for blood and other medical tests.
"I have put aside any thought of compensation," said Mr McDonald, who was visited by an ERA representative at the weekend. "My main concern is my health . . . one doctor told me that obviously my kidneys would be affected. We are not cowboys. We have a brain and we know that this is serious."
Mr Whiteman said yesterday he still feels "shabby".
"I am aching and all I want to do is sleep. I couldn't get off the couch yesterday. I just want to know whether I am going to be healthy. I have had an offer of another job but first I need a clean bill of health." The workers' revelations about the response of ERA may threaten the company's efforts to resume ore processing at the mine, which produces 10 per cent of the Western world's uranium.
Meanwhile, mining in Ranger's open pit resumed on Thursday after the Federal Government's supervising scientist, Arthur Johnston, said the nearly 200-strong workforce could return subject to safety measures. But Dr Johnston said in a statement on April 1 that there were still a number of issues on which he needed to be satisfied before he could recommend the resumption of processing.
A Senate report last year found that the Ranger mine had had more than 110 leaks, spills and incidents since it opened in 1981.