Pilbara rail line could pose asbestos risk
A Pilbara council claims people could be exposed to potentially lethal asbestos if Rio Tinto is allowed to build a railway line through a controlled area near Wittenoom to service one of its ore mines.
In a motion passed at last week’s council meeting, Shire of Ashburton councillors formally objected to the alignment of the rail line, which is planned to be built in the Wittenoom Asbestos Management Area and will pass 4km north of the closed town, and appealed to the WA Department of Jobs, Tourism, Science and Innovation for its route to be “reconsidered” to exclude access through the area.
The motion also stated if the State Government approved the alignment, the Shire should be protected from liability for any asbestos-related compensation claims associated with the railway’s construction and maintenance.
Shire of Ashburton president Kerry White said the local government had “significant concern” the railway line’s planned alignment risked exposing people to asbestos, which could lead to claims for compensation from the Shire.
“While it is noted that the EPA approval for the project to be implemented includes conditions relating to asbestos management within the WAMA, it is the Shire’s on-going position that the serious nature of the human health risks associated with asbestos exposure should principally be avoided, rather than managed,” she said.
“As such the alignment of the railway corridor should be reconsidered to avoid access through the WAMA, thereby negating the need for management of exposure to asbestos.”
Cr White said council had previously raised concerns about the Koodaideri rail alignment during an Environmental Protection Authority review in 2013, but plans for the project had not been significantly altered since.
The proposed Koodaideri rail line would link the East Pilbara mine to the Rio Tinto rail network and run over a distance of about 170km.
A Rio Tinto spokesman said the company had developed a management plan to contain the asbestos risk.
He said it had been approved by several government departments.
“To ensure this work is carried out in a safe manner, a detailed Koodaideri Asbestos Environmental Management Plan has been approved by the Department of Health, Department of Water and Environmental Regulation and the Environmental Protection Agency, which will avoid the spread of asbestos contamination, and ensure it does not impact Rio Tinto’s employees, contractors or the wider community,” he said.
“This plan includes appropriate monitoring to ensure the local environment is safe for our employees, contractors and the community.”
However, Asbestos Disease Society of Australia WA president Robert Vojakovic said allowing the rail line to be placed in its planned alignment would be a “disaster” because the speed and mass of an iron ore train would send fine asbestos particles into the air over a large distance, potentially reaching Port Hedland, Broome, Derby or even Perth.
He noted there was no safe level of exposure to asbestos.
“If a train’s going at a speed of 100km/h, it would be a disaster for the locality,” he said.
“The fibres can spread hundreds of kilometres, and whatever goes up must come down.
“The train itself could transmit fibres too, on the wheels, exterior or connected parts.”
Compensation claims for people with asbestos-related diseases after being exposed to the fibres in Wittenoom have been made against parties including the Shire of Ashburton for decades.
The Shire has previously stated the claims are ongoing and are made “at regular intervals” and at a “significant” cost.
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