WOODSREEF ASBESTOS MINE SITE REHABILITATION
Mr PETER DRAPER
(Tamworth) [12.59 p.m.]: The House is well aware of the challenges facing the Barraba community in its attempts to secure a safe and reliable water supply. It is a critical issue that I continue to pursue actively. However, today I speak on behalf of Barraba's 1,200 residents about the derelict Woodsreef asbestos mine. How would anybody in this place feel if they had a derelict asbestos mine in their backyard? The Chrysotile Corporation of Australia carried out large-scale mining at Woodsreef between 1970 and 1983. It produced approximately 500,000 tonnes of chrysotile, or white asbestos, from 100 million tonnes of mined material. Both State and Federal governments provided enormous amounts of money to keep the mine operating but it finally closed in 1983, and this is where the nightmare really began.
After the mine closed, a 75-million tonne waste rock dump covering an area of approximately 117 hectares was left behind. A 25-million tonne tailings dump also remains, covering approximately 43 hectares. This tailings stockpile has an average height of 45 metres, reaching a maximum height of 70 metres. The open-cut pit has been filled with water, and I have been told that it is more than 1,000 metres deep. Also of great concern are the nine-storey mill buildings that are abandoned and lie basically unsecured. A story on the ABC's 7.30 Report
on 13 August put the issue back in the spotlight, but it raised more questions than it answered. How could a New South Wales Department of Primary Industries representative describe white asbestos as a "medium health risk" and then describe the site as "relatively safe" when chrysotile is classified as a class one carcinogen?
Why is it that members of the public are prohibited from going behind the fenced-off area surrounding the mine because of health concerns yet it is okay for kids to play right outside the fence where the runoff from rain carries asbestos tailings to the public road? Is it acceptable that passing vehicles constantly stir up asbestos dust? When was the last time the Woodsreef mine and its tailings were monitored for health impacts by a State Government body, and when was the last health impact examination conducted regarding the Barraba community? The 7.30 Report
story resulted in Hunter New England Health being directed to undertake an urgent study of the health implications for the Barraba community. However, Tamworth media are reporting that the health service is referring all queries regarding any findings to the Department of Primary Industries. Unfortunately, ABC radio reported that the department is not prepared to provide a spokesperson to answer inquiries.
I believe strongly that the people of Barraba are entitled to receive a full report quickly and transparently, and I urge the Government to make sure this happens. I say quickly and transparently because past reports about the mine site have been allowed to gather dust—much to the discredit of the State Government. The first report was the Danes and Moore health risk assessment of 1997. This was followed by the "Woodsreef Asbestos Mine Mill House Site Remediation Report" in 1999. It is a damning indictment on those responsible for action that the opening statement of the most recent report reads:
In view of recent available data on the health effects of chrysotile asbestos, and the conclusions reached from the study and assessment of the site, emphasis must be placed on the need to carry out remediation works required in the Mill House and adjacent areas at Woodsreef Mine, in a manner that will be totally controlled by competent people in the safest possible way. The results of our laboratory test show that approximately 80% of the asbestos cement sheeting tested by this company contained chrysotile asbestos, with estimates of up to 40% by volume of chrysotile fibre. Results from medical reports indicate that the potential health hazards from chrysotile asbestos are as great as other types of asbestos and no complacency should exist as to the health hazards of this material, when contemplating removal. With the majority of asbestos identified within the Mill House and adjacent areas being 100% pure chrysotile fibre, there must be an acceptance of the fact that a major health hazard does exist within these areas.
That was nearly 10 years ago, and the site has deteriorated further since then. The people of Barraba deserve urgent action. At the instigation of Councillor Shirley Close, a former Barraba mayor and tireless fighter on this issue, Tamworth Regional Council has formed an alliance with the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union and the Asbestos Diseases Foundation of Australia to campaign for the rehabilitation of the Woodsreef mine site, plus upgrading and rerouting of the road that passes it—action that was recommended 10 years ago but never acted upon. In 1996, rehabilitation was estimated to cost $83 million. Obviously this has been a huge factor in the lack of action. On 9 September I will meet with Chris Sylvester, managing director of mining company Imcor, which is interested in developing and rehabilitating the site.
It is estimated that the tailings may sustain for almost 50 years an 80,000 tonnes per year magnesium refinery. The quantity and composition of the tailings stockpile are well known, and it has the potential to produce silica, ferronickel and magnetite in addition to magnesium. The Department of Primary Industries has stated that, should reprocessing occur, the capital expenditure is estimated to be in the order of $400 million and it could lead to more than 100 new jobs. So there is potential to rehabilitate the Woodsreef site while creating jobs. If an unsecured asbestos mine were located in a Third World country we would be jumping up and down demanding that the environmental disaster be cleaned up in the interests of citizens' health and wellbeing. I urge the New South Wales Government to work closely with Tamworth council and its alliance, mining interests and the Barraba community to ensure that it happens here as a matter of urgency.