EDITORIAL: Asbestos claims at Orica Kooragang Island

THE 2011 leak of potentially carcinogenic hexavalent chromium from Orica’s Kooragang Island ammonium nitrate plant generated the equivalent of a lifetime’s worth of bad publicity for the Australian chemical company.

The way that the unwanted material escaped from the plant and fell over parts of nearby Stockton was bad enough, but Orica’s problems were compounded by what it eventually admitted was an inept public relations mission.

But time, as they say, is a healer, and six years on there was reason to expect that the company had learned its lesson, and was prepared to deal with its neighbours in a more open and frank way than it had in the past. This was the way the Newcastle Herald was approaching things after it and other Hunter media outlets were invited to the Kooragang plant last month for a morning-long briefing and tour of the industrial site. We had been invited because Orica was about to embark – for the first time since 2011 – on the sort of overhaul program that resulted in the hexavalent chromium leak. At the briefing, Orica management provided substantial detail as to why this latest overhaul – costing $67 million and expected to take 47 days – would run smoothly.

But as the Herald is reporting, Orica is now dealing with what appears to be a significant asbestos exposure just a fortnight into the shutdown of its ammonia plant.

Questioned about what the situation, Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union organiser Peter Harris said his union was unhappy with what had happened. Other union officials held similar concerns.

But aware of the way that safety issues can be used as industrial levers, the Herald asked detailed question of Orica, in order to ascertain if the union account was accurate. Orica said it did not agree with the account provided by the unions, but it declined to say why this was the case. This is its prerogative. But a failure to engage with the detail of the matter only tends to reinforce the union account of things.

As things stand, the Herald cannot ascertain the severity of this asbestos scare. Nor can we judge whether, as the unions allege, it has been handled badly. But given the dangers of asbestos exposure – and Orica Kooragang Island’s recent history –  the media has every right to investigate such an issue. The workplace regulator is investigating, and the ball is, still, in Orica’s court.

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