Higher Rates Of Cancer At Coal Loading Terminal

[First broadcast ABC 20th July 2012]

A report has revealed workers at the Kooragang Island coal terminal near Newcastle have a higher than average chance of getting cancer. The company PWCS says it's taking the findings very seriously. Unions are demanding a full investigation of the whole island.

Image - MUA newcastle glen williams.jpeg

TONY EASTLEY: A six year investigation into cancer rates at one of the country's largest coal loading terminals has found workers there are getting cancer at nearly three times higher than average.

Workers at Port Waratah Coal Services' Kooragang Island coal terminal near Newcastle were told about the disturbing figures late yesterday.

Unions want the New South Wales Government to launch its own investigation, as Will Ockenden reports.

WILL OCKENDEN: Six years ago workers at Kooragang Island coal terminal became concerned an alarming number of workmates were getting cancer.

GARRY HERRITT: I was a full-time employee at the Kooragang coal loader from 1990.

WILL OCKENDEN: Garry Herritt was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2004 and retired two years later.

At about that time Port Waratah Coal Services commissioned a report to find out if workers were getting cancer at higher rates.

GARRY HERRITT: It's very pleasing for me personally to see that it's been tabled. The disconcerting aspect is of course the result.

WILL OCKENDEN: One of the report's authors University of Newcastle's John Attia compared Kooragang Island to PWCS' other coal loading site at Carrington.

JOHN ATTIA: Because it's the same company running both sites, people are recruited the same way, the work practices are similar.

WILL OCKENDEN: What the researchers have found has sent ripples of fear though the coal terminal company's workforce.

JOHN ATTIA: There is a 1.7 fold increase in the risk of cancer compared to state and national average and a 2.8 fold increase in the risk of cancer compared to the local comparison population at Carrington.

WILL OCKENDEN: While the report has confirmed what the workers long suspected, the report didn't look at why the rate was higher.

JOHN ATTIA: We can't really pinpoint what might be causing this effect. But statistically speaking it's a strong effect so there is something about the site that might be causing this effect.

WILL OCKENDEN: Workers are developing a mix of cancers: melanoma, prostate and colorectal - three of the most common types.

That's where this differs from other workplace cancer cases like asbestos causing mesothelioma or the ABC's Toowong's unexplained breast cancer case.

But University of Newcastle's John Attia says it is similar to the Australian Air Force's F-111 case.

JOHN ATTIA: The people that had been involved in the deseal/reseal program on the F-111 fuel tanks, they had a general increase across a number of different kinds of cancer.

WILL OCKENDEN: John Attia says workers in the asbestos case were 10 times more likely to develop cancer than the rest of the population.

ABC Toowong workers were six times more likely. And in the F-111 case workers were one and a half times more likely.

JOHN ATTIA: Statistically speaking stronger result here than it was in the F-111 project.

WILL OCKENDEN: A touch over half of Port Waratah Coal Services is owned by mining giants Rio Tinto, Xstrata and Anglo American.

The company expects to ship 110 million tonnes of coal from the Hunter Valley through its terminals this year.

Its chief executive Hennie Du Plooy and he says he's taking the findings seriously.

HENNIE DU PLOOY: No indication at the moment of any occupational link and we'll be continuing some study work to explore that further.

WILL OCKENDEN: The report recommends an experts review the site, that advice be taken on a cancer screening program, and workers be encouraged to see their doctors.

PWCS says it accepts all the recommendations.

HENNIE DU PLOOY: In terms of how long it will take, we can't predict that. I think that depends on the scope of the study and how long it takes the researchers to do it rigorously and properly as they have done in this case.

WILL OCKENDEN: Glen Williams is from the Maritime Union of Australia.

GLEN WILLIAMS: The results that they are getting give us great concern in seeing what's going on up there.

WILL OCKENDEN: He wants a government investigation into all workplaces on Kooragang Island.

GLEN WILLIAMS: Is it something that's in the water on Kooragang? Is it something that's in the air? You know, those are the questions that we need answered.

TONY EASTLEY: Glen Williams from the Newcastle branch of the Maritime Union of Australia, ending Will Ockenden's report.