Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Radioactive Freight Causes an Adverse Reaction for Rail Freight Carriers

When is a Hazardous Load Not Dangerous?
Shipping News Feature

AUSTRALIA – The flooding which has plagued the Northern Territory has brought to the fore the controversial matter of transporting hazardous cargo after a freight train was derailed when passing the Edith River Crossing, a well known beauty spot, and cutting the entire rail corridor. Original reports stated that the train carried bulk iron ore but now it appears, according to local reports, that at least part of the cargo was copper concentrate which contained quantities of radioactive uranium which has entered the river system as a result of the accident.

As any freight forwarder knows any radioactive material is normally subject to the most stringent of regulations yet the low yield of this particular ore apparently meant the 1,500 tonnes was shipped in open top wagons with just tarpaulin covers. Accusations are now being levied that OZ Minerals, the owners of the cargo, have not produced evidence to confirm that the uranium levels were less than the 0.008% they have declared.

The company has issued a statement saying with water levels still high it is difficult to determine exactly how much of the dry copper concentrate has been lost but estimates losses at around 1,000 to 1,200 tonnes whilst quoting a total value of US$ 7 to 8 million for all the ore being transported. According to Northern Territory News, authorities had given permission to waive normal safety regulations to allow carriage by open rail wagons, which despite protestations that much of the radioactive pollution will be diluted by the vast quantities of water, will not please locals.

Although the local government agency for Natural Resources and Environment (NRETAS) has taken several samples to assess the levels of any pollutants including a range of heavy metals, total dissolved solids, dissolved organic carbon, total organic carbon, pH, and electrical conductivity, it appears that the national holidays have meant there has been no investigation as yet by the local Health and Safety at Work body, NTWorkSafe nor had there been any contact with the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) up to this morning. The latest case is sure to reinforce calls for assurances that such cargoes are carried in future in sealed wagons, something OZ Metals have said they have been considering for sometime but now it is likely now to engender legislation which cannot be bypassed.

The latest pollution incident is just the latest in a series which seem to, literally, go with the Territory. Darwin Port Corporation saw an incident in April 2011 in which slurry from an ore transport kibble which had held OZ Metals copper concentrate was damaged by a forklift causing the port authorities to raise a website page devoted to the incident and ,allegedly, the replacement of the then CEO Robert Ritchie who was replaced in August. Darwin Port Corporation was fined A$19,000 and costs of A$50,000 in relation to this offence.

The Edith River itself is already the victim of pollution with accusations that gold mining firm Vista has seen millions of gallons of contaminated water from an overflow pond spill into the flooded river and has yet to confirm what heavy metals were present despite issuing a report to local government which local press say remains confidential. Copper and other metals are of course poisonous to fish and aquatic life and farmers are concerned saying the river is used for drinking water and the irrigation of crops and fishing.

Incidents of pollution are almost inevitable given the size of shipments of potentially toxic material being mined and transported through the Northern Territory but to maintain public confidence it will be necessary for the authorities to demonstrate that there has been, and can never be, any relaxation in the techniques and equipment used to carry the cargoes of ore so precious in terms of local jobs and industry, particularly in an area which may be subject to all manner of natural disasters.