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Thursday, 24 May 2001
Page: 27064

Mr ZAHRA (5:21 PM) —I have been waiting patiently here for all of that other legislation to be dealt with, but I am pleased to have the opportunity to continue my remarks now. I think I have seven or eight minutes left and I intend to continue with the point that I was making previous to question time, when the debate was interrupted, in relation to asbestos exposure and the effect that it has had on our community in the Latrobe Valley. I am not sure if you recall, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I was discussing an incident which had taken place at Yallourn power station in my electorate in which, in my view, the lives of a number of workers had been placed at risk because they were directed back into work by the company under threat of legal action on the basis that the company had determined that the workplace was safe.

Before question time I pointed out that on the night before this incident, which took place on 27 February this year, there was a Four Corners report entitled `Power without glory' which set out in some detail the extent of asbestos exposure which had taken place in the Latrobe Valley over two or three generations. People in the Latrobe Valley have plenty of right to be concerned about asbestos exposure and these men, who were in Yallourn power station on the day when they received advice that there had been an explosion in unit 2 boiler, had every right to be concerned about being exposed to asbestos as a result of that. Despite their genuine concerns, they were directed under threat of legal action—intimidation, in my view—to go back into that power station. The concern which they had for their families, their wellbeing and their workmates' wellbeing would have been horrendous. It is a horrendous thing to be sent back into work under those circumstances. I have received an account of these matters and of the way that incident played out on 27 February and I intend to read to the House part of that account. It is from someone who was close to the matters relating to that incident. This is the account which I have:

At about 4 in the morning—

of 27 February this year—

a huge slab of clinker fell inside the unit 2 boiler combustion chamber. Clinker is the molten ash and other residue combustion products left on the inside of the boiler. It builds up in thickness and eventually can cause the boiler to be taken out of service for a boiler clean. Now and then pieces of the clinker break off and fall into the ash hopper at the base of the boiler. The ash hopper is usually full of water and it is flushed out two or three times a day.

When a large slab of hot clinker fails into the ash hopper's water it rapidly heats the water, which flashes off as an explosion of steam. The steam expands so fast that it can cause damage, as it did in this case. Added to this the large mass can cause mechanical damage in itself. The result is what can only be described as a boiler explosion.

In this instance the explosion caused high pressure boiler tubes filled with high temperature water—


tear from the lower waterwall header and thereby causing even more flashing off of steam and dust. Obviously the boiler was then quickly forced to shutdown.

The explosion of steam and hot combustion gases caused lagging and cladding to be blown off the lower section of the boiler. Lagging is a fibrous compound applied to insulate high temperature components against heat loss. The cladding is sheetmetal which is affixed to protect and hold the lagging in place. In the past lagging was asbestos based though its use has all but ceased. Parts of boilers are however still lagged in asbestos material. Power companies are required to maintain a detailed register of where the asbestos is located.

The force of the explosion sent some cladding flying some 50 metres away, dislodged lagging and raised clouds of dust and steam. Asbestos dust when disturbed can float in the air and is able to drift with the breeze. It does not stop at barricades or signs.

However, initial reports from Yallourn Energy failed to mention the possibility of the site being contaminated with the deadly substance, asbestos or its less dangerous substitute synthetic mineral fibres (SMFs). In fact even when the company had set up an exclusion zone and was warning employees to remain clear they did not use the word asbestos and simply mentioned environmental monitoring rather than air monitoring. The exclusion zone was blamed on what they simply described as a “tube leak”. Tube leaks are not uncommon with boilers and in itself this would not raise much concern with employees. In fact given the fact that the boiler had been shut down and depressurised, a tube leak posed no threat.

The company called in Hazcon, an environmental monitoring laboratory to conduct tests. Throughout the day Yallourn Energy continued to down play the incident and whilst it maintained an exclusion zone it would not accept that an asbestos contamination was possible let alone likely. The company endeavoured to prevent a number of union organisers site access to investigate the incident and it was not until Workcover became involved that this was achieved. The company did not correspond or contact the CFMEU Mining and Energy office (the major union on site) or its senior officer during the days events.

During the day, power station operators where required to continue working in the control room wearing breathing apparatus. Despite a potential threat to their health and safety, the company placed production above the welfare of its employees.

Coincidentally, the previous evening's ABC 4 Corners program was devoted to a story on asbestos in the Latrobe Valley power industry including Yallourn. The program highlighted how the health risks associated with the product had been known about well before its use was restricted or ceased. The program also showed that many Latrobe Valley people had died as a result of their exposure to the substance.

Fearing that not enough was being done to protect their members, the CFMEU's Luke van der Meulen and the ASU's Mike Rizzo issued a joint recommendation that afternoon that all employees should expeditiously shutdown the remaining boilers and evacuate the site after being decontaminated. This recommendation saw the company correspond for the first time since the incident. The company rejected any risk to the employees and implied that any such recommendation would be construed as illegal industrial action. A combination of threats and assurances by the company saw the shutdown and evacuation process cease.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Hawker)—Order! I know the member feels very passionately about this, but I would hope that he might just come back to the bill before he runs out of time.

Mr ZAHRA —Yes, I will, Mr Deputy Speaker. I know that was a rather long quote to read, but I am almost at the conclusion of it. It continues:

The company declared the site ... clear and free of asbestos later the next day though adding it had taken all necessary precautions. Embarrassingly for the company, official test results on a lump of lagging found around the base of the boiler on the day of the incident was days later proved to be asbestos.

The point that I am trying to make is that today in the year 2001 asbestos is still a live problem for us in the Latrobe Valley. In my view, it is shamelessly irresponsible of Yallourn Energy, on behalf of its parent company, China Light and Power, to be directing workers back into work situations where there are still some risks of asbestos exposure. I intend to investigate whether or not there have been breaches of federal occupational health and safety legislation or of state based occupational health and safety regimes. The truth of this matter needs to be known because it represents a massive risk to the safety and wellbeing of these workers. (Time expired)