- Workers allege tonnes of lead-zinc concentrate have spilled into the Gulf
- Crew members said safety measures were inadequate to stop lead impacts
- The barging company says it has invested in dust control and worker protection measures
Former crewmen who worked onboard the barge which was tasked with bringing a lead-zinc concentrate from the Northern Territory’s McArthur River Mine to be loaded onto export ships have alleged they witnessed regular spills of the product overboard for a decade.
Regular spills witnessed over the decade
Glencore’s Bing Bong port located near Borroloola in the Gulf of Carpentaria is too shallow to allow ships to dock in order to load exports bound for China. It uses the Aburri barge to ferry loads of 3,200 tonnes of concentrate at a time out to the ships and unloads at a point 30 kilometers offshore.
The Aburri operation is run by Carpentaria Shipping Services, which is majority-owned by P&O Maritime in partnership with Indigenous Business Australia, and a local Borroloola indigenous corporation, MAWA.
Workers allege that the conveyor belts used to unload the concentrate from the Aburri barge was a source of large amounts of dust going into the ocean, onto the deck of both vessels, and throughout the interiors of the Aburri barge.
A former worker who finished his employment with P&O Maritime this year, said: “There was a lot of dust coming off the number six conveyor of the Aburri, at the end where they were offloading into the ships. I thought it was environmentally unfriendly at best, and maybe even illegal. Dolphins came in there of a night to feed on the squid, the squid was covered in the lead dust, and they have been eating it every night for 20 years”.
The worker filmed and photographed lead-zinc dust caked on the deck, and flying off the Aburri’s conveyor boom.
High lead levels found in blood
The whistleblower said, “Several crew members had high levels of lead in their blood, and their safety complaints were dismissed by the company’s management. It affected a lot of workers there, especially on the deck at the coalface where they did run high lead levels. Only in the last couple of years have we used a P3 [dust protection] mask. Before that we were using P1s and P2s, which were inadequate, we found out. The lead accumulates in your organs and bones, and gives you anxiety, all kinds of problems come from lead contamination”.
Company refutes allegations
P&O Maritime refused to comment on the allegations and referred the ABC to Glencore. Carpentaria Shipping Services responded by saying, “Crew safety is our number one priority and crew are provided appropriate personnel protective equipment and training. In addition, we regularly monitor the blood lead levels of our crew and our own acceptable limits are below those in the applicable National Safety Standard”.
The Northern Territory Government’s Worksafe authority said, “P&O Maritime removed a worker from duties in November because of high lead levels in his blood, but subsequent medical information provided by McArthur River Mine showed the notification was not warranted, as the worker’s blood levels were below the limit outlined in the work health safety regulations. We also inspected the Bing Bong port Aburri loading operation in 2014, but did not observe anything of concern”.
Production and Profits
Another former Aburri worker told the ABC he felt P&O Maritime’s attitude towards worker and environmental safety was very poor.
He alleged, “I thought it was inadequate and they didn’t seem to care about people, it was more about production and profits. I think the impact they’re having on the environment in this day and age is not acceptable and the way they looked after people’s lead issues was unacceptable”.
The Aburri’s ocean unloading point is near the turtle nesting areas of Centre and West Islands.
Jason Fowler from the Australian Marine Conservation Society said, “It is an unacceptable situation. Lead and zinc concentrate is heavy metals — when they fall in the ocean they bioaccumulate up the food chain”.
Both workers said so much of the cargo went overboard that Chinese customers complained when shipments turned up underweight.
One worker said, “It was coming up light, sometimes by 200 tonnes out of a cargo of 24,000 tonnes. They had to do adjustments on price all the time”.
He said, “The only explanation the crew could think of was that the large amounts of dust going overboard were lightening the load, or that the concentrate was drying out on the voyage overseas. The worker said if the concentrate was being loaded too wet and was drying out, this would present a considerable danger to the ships, because of the free surface effect, in which wet cargoes can destabilise shipping at sea”.
Asked whether their allegations could be dismissed as coming from disgruntled former employees, one of the workers said he had thought long and hard before contacting the ABC because he could not on his conscience stay silent. The other worker said his employer looked after him well financially, but he could not stay silent while he felt former colleagues were still being exposed to lead.
The claim of investment in dust reduction measures
Neither Carpentaria Shipping Services nor Glencore answered the workers’ underweight cargo allegations but Carpentaria Shipping Services said it had invested heavily in dust reduction measures during the period the Aburri has been servicing the McArthur River Mine.
Glencore said, “We conduct extensive monitoring in the offloading area. The Independent Monitor Report released last month noted no exceedances of zinc or lead concentration from any sampled site in the trans-shipment area during the 18 month reporting period. We would take seriously any evidence of such exceedances”.
The Territory Government’s McArthur River Mine Independent Monitor in its 2018 report found zinc and lead levels were higher at the sea unloading point in 2017 than at the Bing Bong barge port, but the monitor did find that both areas had heavy metals readings within allowable levels.
The workers said, “Regulation by Government authorities has been inadequate. Inspectors came on the boat, and they’d just walk past, they didn’t even know what was happening”.
The Northern Territory Mines Department said, “We have been aware of lead-zinc dust issues in the past. There have been improvements in the management of dust in recent years due to improvements in management and increased regulation”.
The federal Australian Maritime Safety Authority said, “It is aware of any environmental issues and has not received any complaints about the P&O Aburri. Before 1 July 2018 the vessel was subject to the NT Marine Safety inspection regime. If a complaint is made, AMSA would consider it and take appropriate action”.
The former workers said, “Regulators needed to take the situation more seriously and inspect unannounced. They need to do inspections where they don’t give notice that they’re coming, or they need get up there with a helicopter and see what’s going on”.
The future of the McArthur River Mine and its export operation is still uncertain. The federal Environment Department is yet to decide whether to approve its application to keep expanding its toxic reactive waste rock dump under an Environmental Impact Statement which does not outline a solution to stop the waste burning or a set plan for rehabilitating it at the end of mining.
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Source: ABC NEWS