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Thursday, 20 October 1983
Page: 2058


Ms McHUGH(8.38) —I wish to speak tonight about the lack of responsibility of companies mining uranium and asbestos in regard to the health and safety of the workers in their industries. The recent strike by workers at the Energy Resources of Australia Ltd Ranger uranium mine and mill over the continuing contamination of the water system, revealed that company's disregard for the health and safety of the workers and the fact that its only concern is profit. It mines irrespective of health or environment and has no satisfactory method of disposing of the residues of its mining. The workers at Ranger are now recognising that the dangers of mining uranium are real and not a figment of the imagination of the many concerned people in the community who are considered to be ratbags for continually pointing out these dangers. The workers are now making demands on the company to ensure that their claims for adequate health and safety provisions are met. When the Minister for Resources and Energy ( Senator Walsh) visited the plant during the strike he found by talking with the men that they had little faith in the Northern Territory Department of Mines and Energy or the mining company to assess the health procedures objectively. Our Government has a responsibility to workers at Ranger to investigate why the workers distrust the Northern Territory supervising authority.

Of course, under our policy we are committed to phasing out uranium mining, but while that phasing out continues it is of the utmost importance that our Labor Government change the laws to ensure that there are satisfactory provisions for the work force in this unfortunate industry. There are regulatory bodies at Ranger, set up under legislation introduced by the previous Liberal Government, but in my view they are totally ineffective and cumbersome. It is quite obvious that the Environment Protection (Alligator Rivers Region) Act 1978 is designed to be used to protect the interests of the mining company Energy Resources of Australia first and foremost. Under the provisions of this Act three bodies were established-the Supervising Scientist for the Alligator Rivers Region, the Alligator Rivers Region Research Institute, and the Co-ordinating Committee. Their function is to develop standards and procedures for the protection and restoration of the environment, to carry out research and monitoring and, through the Supervising Scientist, to report to the Minister for Resources and Energy and, once a year, to the Parliament. They have no powers of enforcement. These powers lie in the hands of the mining company and the Northern Territory Department of Mines and Energy.

Serious questions also have to be asked on environmental protection. There have been continual reports that the tailings dam at Ranger is having stability problems and is considered to be totally inadequate for the volume of material to be held. Radium contamination levels in tailing material are 20 times higher than anticipated.


Mr Lusher —How much?


Ms McHUGH —Twenty times. The retention pond No. 1 is reported to be leaking like a sieve and so contaminant levels are much higher than expected, with all the obvious effects on the area around the mines. Once again, the regulations are completely ineffective and in no way do they make the mining companies subject to public accountability. In spite of all the costly and elaborate regulations, incidents at the Ranger uranium mine continue to reveal that uranium mining is as dangerous to people and the environment today as it was when the Labor Party' s anti-uranium policy was adopted in 1977.

I want now to bring to the attention of the House the serious lack of safety conditions for workers at Roxby Downs. At the moment a feasibility study is being carried out and a pilot program is under construction. The company, Roxby Management Services Pty Ltd, has accepted absolutely no responsibility for the protection of the workers on the site. The company has just moved in with its road building equipment and wantonly destroyed the sacred Aborigine sites of the Kokatha people. Who is to be held liable for this violation of the sites? Honourable members can be assured that in the present circumstances it is not the mining company. Other incidents have been reported at the site, including several large rock falls as a result of underground mining. Water from the mine is used to keep down the dust on the roads. We do not know whether the water is contaminated, but the workers are certainly in trouble if it is. Water trucks used to cart the mine water for the road works are the same trucks used to cart the drinking water. There have been reports that radiation monitors in the mines have been known to go off the scale, and the workers are in extreme danger from exposure to excessive levels of radiation. This says a great deal about the uranium mining industry.

These disturbing reports coming from Roxby Downs are made more serious when one remembers that the development of the project has not even begun. These incidents are happening during the feasibility study stage. There are serious doubts as to the viability of the Roxby project. It seems that it will absorb huge amounts of public funds, create very few jobs, violate sacred sites, and contaminate the local environment. This is happening just during the feasibility study, which in fact will not be concluded until the end of 1984. If mining ever does go ahead it will not be until 1989. Yet these serious conditions exist at the moment and the workers' health is seriously threatened.

The other point I want to bring to the attention of the House is that in another area of mining-in this instance, an asbestos mining company-the mining company has been negligent in regard to the health of the Aboriginal community at Baryulgil. I commend the Minister for Aboriginal Affaris (Mr Holding) for his initiative in conducting an inquiry into the effects of asbestos mining on the Aboriginal community at Baryulgil. The impact of mining on this community appears to have been devastating, and a strong belief exists that a number of people at Baryulgil have died from the effects of inhaling asbestos dust. In the years of operation of this mine the company has accepted little responsibility to protect its workers from asbestos dust. It is well known that the asbestos tailings were dumped around the town, even around the houses, and that for many years the children played in them. There has been a high rate of bronchitis in the community, which of course has been blamed on the tailings. These were covered by dirt only two years ago.

That is just another clear indication of the blatant disregard by a mining company for the well-being of its employees and its total commitment to the profit motive and little else. It is very important that we look at the records of these companies when assessing promises made by them. It is accepted now, when it is too late, that the mining and use of asbestos is dangerous. It has been shown that asbestos mining has caused thousands of workers to contract very serious illnesses, including cancer, and many have died a frightful death. There is absolutely no reason to believe that the situation with uranium would be any different. On the contrary, there is every reason to believe that it would be essentially similar and every reason always to look at the records of the companies when they are giving assurances to the workers.

I notice that one of the terms of reference of the inquiry concerns compensation for individuals who have been adversely affected. I hope that out of this inquiry will come some provision which will put the onus on the mining company finally to accept its responsibility for the lack of health and safety precautions during the years of asbestos mining at Baryulgil, that it should accept liability for just compensation for those individuals adversely affected. Of course, it is a bit late now but it is not too late with uranium mining.

In closing, I would like to make the point that while ever the mining companies offer workers big salaries in order that they might make even bigger profits, workers will always be conned into taking risks with their health and ignoring the record of companies in their regard for workers' health. I hope it will not be long before this Government begins to look into the matter of an effective health and safety program for all mining projects in Australia and that it puts a stop to that mining which can bring no one any good.