MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Uranium drinkers at Ranger say mine cut them loose as contamination spreads

Published 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.


Uranium contamination spreads

Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation

26th March 04

The Ranger uranium mine remains closed following the discovery overnight that some 150,000 litres of water contaminated with uranium levels estimated at 108 parts per billion (five times the Australian drinking water standard) spilled from the Jabiru East water supply off the mine site. This incident has exposed the surrounding environment, the drinking water of businesses based at Jabiru East and downstream Aboriginal communities to an unprecedented threat.

Jabiru East lies some 3 kilometres from the Ranger mine site operated by Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) and is the location of the Jabiru Airport and related facilities, and the offices of the Environmental Research Institute of the Supervising Scientist.

The event is related to an incident at Ranger 48 hours ago when mine workers were exposed to water contaminated with 8,000 parts per billion uranium (400 times the drinking water standard) in their drinking water supply. It is believed the contamination occurred after mine process water was allowed to mix with the potable water supply due to an incorrect connection of pipes.

Executive Officer of Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation, Mr Andy Ralph, said that at a minimum these events have breached the environmental requirements that ERA is obliged to meet. He stressed that the Mirrar People are, however, more concerned for people and country.

"The Mirrar Traditional Owners are fearful of people getting injured or sick on their country, they feel sorry for the mine workers who may have been exposed and are angry at the patently inadequate management of Ranger's process water.

"Along with Northern Territory and Commonwealth regulators, the company is responsible for protecting the environment and people. This incident has potentially put at risk not only the ecosystems of Kakadu's waterways, but also the health of the Aboriginal people who live and hunt nearby, as well as employees based at Jabiru East and tourists passing through the airport," Mr Ralph said.

"It appears that this incident is not simply a matter of human error but that there is an endemic problem with the management of process and potable water at Ranger. At present no one can rule out that the events which led to this contamination have not taken place before.

Mr Ralph said that while these latest incidents have tested relations between the Mirrar and ERA, the Traditional Owners remain keen to work closely with the company to progress environmental and social issues relating to the October 2003 Senate inquiry.

"The Senate inquiry's findings have been largely ignored to date, this incident highlights the need for the concerns of the Mirrar to be seriously considered and factored into the day-to-day operations at Ranger. We look forward to the cooperation of the mining company and the government regulators in the implementation of the inquiry's recommendations.

"In the interim Gundjehmi awaits a full and public report on the incidents, along with recommendations to prevent a recurrence of this serious contamination."

For further information: Justin O'Brien 0407 06 00 99


Summary: Workers who showered in and drank contaminated water at the Ranger uranium mine are considering taking legal action. Interview with Chris Prast, Slater & Gordon.

ABC Darwin Radio Program hosted by Richard Margetson

Date: 5 April 2004

Producer Mr Wayne Shields 08 8943 3222

Contact: Tang Lien 08 8363 9990

RICHARD MARGETSON – PRESENTER:

Twelve days ago we heard about the contamination of drinking water at Ranger uranium mine; in fact, we heard about it on this very program. Workers showered and drank the water before the mine was closed down.

This morning on ABC local radio, on 105.7 ABC Darwin, workers who were contaminated spoke for the very first time. They’re not satisfied with the procedures that took place after the contamination, saying they were only told about the extent of the contamination after the mine was shut down.

They’re considering taking legal action and we’ll speak with the law firm representing them in just a minute. But first, let’s hear what one of the workers had to say; his name’s Paul McDonald. He was working casually as a fitter and he drank two to three litres of the contaminated water and in this interview, this is some of it that he spoke about with Julia Christiansen earlier today.

[Excerpt from earlier show]

PAUL McDONALD – FORMER RANGER MINE WORKER: The mine site shut around nine o’clock on the Wednesday; we was told that the water was contaminated but we weren’t told to what extent. We actually read it in the newspaper that it was contaminated with uranium, four hundred times above the accepted level and obviously we all went into a panic then. We stayed … we phoned our boss back in Perth and informed him what was going on.

JULIE CHRISTIANSEN – PRESENTER: So what did the company, ERA, tell you about why they hadn’t informed you sooner?

McDONALD: They apologised. They just basically said that for some reason my three colleagues and myself had actually (indistinct) slipped through the net. I was just very annoyed that nobody had been and told me exactly how serious it was. I just thought the contamination would be probably a little bit (indistinct) or (indistinct) or whatever. I was mortified when I found out it was uranium and another cocktail of acids. The other standing point at the moment too, is that we have not actually been told exactly what contents or what we've actually consumed from the drinking fountain we was at.

CHRISTIANSEN: When were you actually offered medical treatment and/or testing by ERA?

McDONALD: We didn’t see any representative for two and a half days. Like I said, I think it was on the Friday afternoon, we was offered medical treatment then.

CHRISTIANSEN: So did you fly to Perth to get that treatment and testing?

McDONALD: My three colleagues actually live in Perth. Once we realised we were in … what we’d … what we thought we’d been drinking, we was all feeling pretty nauseous and suffering headaches, we wanted to come home in case we deteriorated because we wanted to be near our families.

CHRISTIANSEN: And so did ERA or the contractor who employed you help pay for the travel home?

McDONALD: No, the contractor that employed us sacked us there and then. [End of file excerpt]

MARGETSON: That’s a pretty amazing story from Paul McDonald, one of the workers at Ranger uranium mine who drank contaminated water about twelve days ago. That interview with Julia Christiansen was held on 105.7 earlier today. Later on, on the Territory Radio you would have heard Paul McDonald speaking again as well.

The legal firm representing him is Slater & Gordon. Chris Prast (ph.sp.) is helping to prepare that case; he’s the managing law clerk there. And, Chris, thanks for joining us today.

CHRIS PRAST – SLATER & GORDON: It’s a pleasure.

MARGETSON: That story, which is pretty extensive; they were sent home, they didn’t know what they’d been contaminated with, they flew home to be with their families, they seek medical treatment, they get sacked, they don’t still know exactly what they drank and are waiting for results of medical tests. None of that sounds good, but it makes me wonder where the legal arguments are in that and what you’re planning to do as … for legal representation.

PRAST: Well, it’s very early days in our investigation. Slater & Gordon won’t commence proceedings unless we are confident that they have some reasonable prospects of a decent result. But I must say, in the twenty-six years or so that I’ve been involved in this business, I can’t think of a set of facts that cry out more for some proper compensation. It’s quite extraordinary that workers could go to work and be exposed to water of that kind from a drinking fountain.

MARGETSON: This is what I’m wondering; I’m wondering whether you would approach it if you managed to establish enough facts – and, as you say, you’re still working on that – as an industrial issue or an environmental issue. What would the arguments be?

PRAST: Well, it’s clearly an industrial issue. Clearly, employers in this country have to provide a safe place of work and operators of a mine site have to provide safe facilities for their workers and contractors. And I wouldn’t have thought this water fountain was a safe workplace.

MARGETSON: So the action would come against ERA or the contractor that employed them? Particularly ERA for the safe water?

PRAST: Well, they have two kinds of claim; they have an ordinary workers’ compensation claim against their actual employer, but ERA would seem to be – from the instructions that we have received – the party who’s responsible for the operation of the mine site, and they are the people that we would be looking to for some proper compensation.

MARGETSON: We spoke with representatives of ERA virtually as soon as this story broke on this program and the implication that we got on that day was that everything was very low key, there were very few people who needed to worry about any health issues and that pretty much everything would be back to normal within hours of us speaking. That certainly is not the case. Are you surprised at the way in which ERA have dealt with it as a community and … dealt with the community trying to spread the information that they want to spread?

PRAST: Their response disappoints me but it doesn’t surprise me. It could never be said, I would have thought, that this water was safe. It could never be said that this is fair treatment for people who go to work expecting to be able to come home and sleep at night, not having consumed water that’s clearly dangerous.

MARGETSON: What about the role of the contractor who sacked particularly Paul McDonald on the spot when they left for what they said was medical treatment?

PRAST: Well, although that sort of behaviour, again, disappoints me, they really are only sending workers to a mine site, presumably, that they think will be safe. They’re probably as disappointed as our clients to find out what they’ve been drinking up there.

MARGETSON: When you say your clients, are you representing Paul McDonald, and how many other workers are you representing?

PRAST: We act for three of the people at the moment, three people who come from Perth. And so Slater & Gordon are acting for those three at the moment and I think one of the things to investigate is whether or not there are more people who have been affected in this way and possibly suffered the same or similar complaints to these people.

MARGETSON: Would you want to gather more clients into that base overall as part of you gathering more evidence?

PRAST: Well, not so much gathering more clients, but certainly, if there are people who have something to say about what went on on that day. And in particular, anybody who can give information to Slater & Gordon in Perth about the length of time it took the mine operator to alert the workers on the mine site as to what had happened, that information would be very useful.

MARGETSON: When are you expecting to see information about the results of the medical test?

PRAST: Well, that’s a good question. We wrote on Thursday to ERA and the response we’ve received to date is that they are still investigating it. I’m being hopeful that their investigations wouldn’t take too much longer, it’s a very long wait for these people who’ve consumed this water.

MARGETSON: Are you dealing with just the company, or are you dealing with the Chief Scientist as well?

PRAST: Our contact at the moment is with the company.

MARGETSON: Just for the record, are you doing this as pro bono work or are you actually taking a fee for this?

PRAST: Well, at the moment we haven’t negotiated any arrangement with these people. Our first role in this is to investigate the matter and decide whether or not they do have a case. If they do have a case we will talk to them about our fee arrangement.

MARGETSON: That conversation that we just heard from Paul McDonald, does that sound like a case to you?

PRAST: Certainly Paul is very entitled to feel very disgruntled at the treatment he’s received and there’s an old maxim that says something like that, if there’s a wrong there should be a remedy. And it would sound in this case that there should be a remedy for these people and anybody, in fact, who’s been affected by this water.

MARGETSON: Chris Prast, thanks for joining us.

PRAST: Pleasure.

MARGETSON: Chris Prast is from Slater & Gordon in Perth, the managing law clerk there. They’re representing three people so far who were involved in that contaminated water incident at the ERA Ranger Mine and it sounds like there’s a little bit of legal toing and froing to go yet.

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