Union Demands Health Insurance For PWCS Employees

The Maritime Union of Australia wants Port Waratah Coal Services to provide private health insurance for its employees in the wake of the Kooragang Island cancer scare.

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 MUA Newcastle branch secretary Glen Williams said yesterday that the company had refused an initial suggestion from the union, which was adding private insurance to a log of claims in a new round of enterprise bargaining negotiations.

Concerns over cancer rates on Kooragang Island have become a major industrial concern in the wake of a University of Newcastle report confirming employee fears of elevated cancer incidence at the coal-loader.

While the study does not look at causes, suspicions have been raised about potentially carcinogenic industrial waste stored on the island near the Tourle Street bridge.

BHP was not the only company to dump industrial waste on Kooragang, but more than 80 years of steelworks waste have been buried on either side of the Hunter River's south arm, and the steelworks site itself was contaminated with pollutants from the coke works and other industrial processes.

A spokesman for the state-owned Hunter Development Corporation confirmed yesterday that a U-shaped underground wall built around the most contaminated section of the steelworks site was designed to stop contaminated groundwater moving north towards the Hunter River and Kooragang Island.

Tens of millions of dollars were spent on the 1.6-kilometre underground wall, which is up to 45metres deep. Work began on the wall in 2006, the year the cancer concerns were raised at PWCS.

A 2003 Newcastle Herald report noted that steelworks groundwater had polyaromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, at up to 25,000 times the relevant limits.

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Mr Williams said it was important to get to the bottom of such historical issues, which was why the union wanted an independent investigation by the Cancer Institute of NSW.

PWCS chief executive Hennie du Plooy said the company was working with its employees to understand the heightened incidence of cancer and it was ''important that we deal with the facts in this process''.

''PWCS conducts routine groundwater monitoring at its Kooragang Island facilities, some of which is reported under Environmental Protection Licences and publicly available,'' Mr du Plooy said.

''This monitoring has not indicated that contamination migrating from the old steelworks sites is a concern for PWCS's Kooragang facilities.''

He said most of the cancers among Kooragang employees were influenced by hereditary and lifestyle factors and were not cancers one would usually ''pick up'' in a workplace.

Mr Williams said this answer did not account for the difference between cancer rates at the Kooragang and Carrington loaders.