McArthur River Mine workers break silence with allegations of serious injuries from toxic smoke
EXCLUSIVE BY THE ABC NATIONAL REPORTING TEAM’S JANE BARDON TUE NOV 29 2016
Former fly-in-fly-out workers have told the ABC they have serious injuries after breathing in toxic smoke from burning rock on one of the world’s biggest zinc and lead mines, and that owner Glencore has not offered compensation or assistance.
They are also alleging that staff at the McArthur River Mine in the Northern Territory were ordered to cover up the extent of a fire on the huge man-made mountain where the company is dumping its waste rock.
For the first time Glencore has publicly confirmed to the ABC that it is aware that one of its workers has alleged they have been injured.
The dump has been burning since at least 2013, sending out a huge plume of sulphur dioxide smoke.
Until now mine workers have not spoken out publicly. They do not want to be identified for fear of damaging their chances of compensation.
‘I’ve lost 30 per cent of my lung capacity’
One worker said he had to go to hospital to be treated for debilitating conditions in February 2015, after a year working as a bulldozer driver surrounded by the toxic smoke.
“It’s all internal. Heart, lungs, massive loss of weight, muscle, erratic heartbeat. I’ve lost about 30 per cent of my lung capacity,” he said.
He said he did not complain to NT Worksafe or try to get compensation from Glencore because doctors have not been able to prove his illness was caused by sulphur dioxide.
“But I worked there and I’ve never been able to work since. Personally, it’s wrecked my health. Financially, it’s broken me.”
Thoracic physician Dr Chris Zappala, who has treated many mine workers over many years, said it was difficult to prove which gases caused respiratory problems.
He said the results of breathing in sulphur dioxide could include “inflammation of the respiratory tract damage, shortness of breath, [and] tracheobronchitis”, and ongoing exposure could lead to permanent harm including “reductions in lung function”.
‘Unreliable’ masks and gas monitors issued
The worker said in 2014, the company issued workers with gas masks and monitors.
“But they were unreliable, if they were exposed to the gas for more than three to five minutes, they would just give a continual read-out,” the former worker said, adding: “Masks didn’t really help much.”
Another worker who said he left the mine in 2015 said: “There were quite a few people that went to sick bay, and one who had to go to hospital in Darwin.”
A worker who left in 2016 said he suffered asthma attacks after breathing in the sulphur dioxide.
“I know a lot of people who were badly affected by it, and one of them actually dropped to his knees and another person had to move him out of the area.”
A GP told the ABC he treated two more workers who were exposed to the smoke and they took months to recover.
“One had swelling in his larynx which affected his vocal chords. He had spasms of the airways. The other was having airway issues and spasms.”
NT Worksafe found no evidence of injuries
Workers have told the ABC that Worksafe inspectors visited the site but the company made sure employees with health complaints did not speak to them.
NT Worksafe said it received and investigated complaints that a mine worker suffered nosebleeds as a result of sulphur dioxide exposure in 2012 and 2014, but found “no evidence of any injuries”.
Glencore has responded by saying the mine complies with the NT Workers’ Rehabilitation and Compensation Act.
“The Act outlines measures for both keeping our people safe from harm as well as the process for workers who believe their health has been impacted as a result of their work,” the company said.
The company has also said it has implemented strong systems and processes “which provide the necessary protection for the safety of our people”.
It said these include sulphur dioxide awareness training, provision of Australian standard personal protective equipment and respiratory equipment to all staff working in potentially impacted areas, and appropriate gas detection devices.
The company added it had set limits for worker exposure to sulphur dioxide compliant with national standards.
Glencore said it was aware of a workers compensation claim made by a former employee that “followed the legislated process” and was “declined by the insurer”.
Glencore rejected workers’ allegations that staff were kept away from Worksafe inspectors.
“Worksafe NT can access any area of the mine and speak with employees or unions at any time, as is required under legislation.”
Former workers allege cover-up
Since May 2015 Glencore has maintained that it had put the dump fire out.
Mid-last year it told the NT Government that had been done by digging out the combusting rock to cool it and covering the dump in a layer of clay.
But in August 2016 local resident complaints alerted regulators that the dump was still burning.
Former workers allege the continued combustion was hidden when NT Government inspectors or media were due to visit.
The former dump bulldozer driver said: “If you were going to have people come and visit, you made sure they came at the right time of the day, when the gas isn’t there, not early morning or late afternoon.”
“You can brush it up and make it look pretty but inside it’s still on fire.”
Another former worker said extra clay was put onto the dump where the rock was burning through.
“They would put extra staff onto those hotspots and they would try and cover what they could. If they had a big visit they would do their best to hide as much as they could.”
Addressing the allegation of covering up continued burning on the waste rock dump, Glencore responded by saying: “We have always acknowledged that some small pockets of material have the potential to react because of the nature of our waste rock.”
“However, these are managed as they occur and the large-scale spontaneous combustion that we saw more than two years ago has not reoccurred.
“We continue to adopt best practice in the placement and management of waste rock.”
In 2014 in response to the waste dump fire, Glencore was ordered to submit a new Environmental Impact Statement to be allowed to continue expanding. It expects to produce that report next year.