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Asbestos on the Rise for Pilbara Roads

Due to asbestos mines in the area, the roads in Pilbara, especially the road between Karratha and Tom Price, were severely contaminated by asbestos. As a result, conditions were too dangerous for workers to conduct their usual maintenance activities, and the road’s condition deteriorated.

How Extensive is the Asbestos Contamination?

The asbestos contamination between Karratha and Tom Price in Pilbara is more severe than was initially thought. According to Main Roads, 360 cubic metres of asbestos was visible in close proximity to the construction of Stage 3 of the new road.

Although Main Roads has known about the asbestos contamination since June 2017, they didn’t realise the full extent, according to the Department of Planning, Lands, and Heritage.

After the discovery of asbestos that was not visible at the end of September, Main Roads concluded that the contamination in the area was 38 times worse than expected. According to Dean Roberts, spokesperson for Main Roads, the volume of contaminated soil can amount to as much as 14,000 cubic metres.

The extent of the asbestos contamination resulted in the delay of the construction of stage 3 of the new road and, although the scope of the contamination was not entirely expected, the project is expected to continue in April 2019, but at a significantly higher cost. This increased cost is mainly due to the increase in remedial costs to make construction and road use safer.  

Is the Road Safe to Use?

To date, travellers are still being urged not to drive on the road between Tom Price and Karratha in Pilbara, not only because of the poor condition of the road but also because of the extensive asbestos contamination in the area.

The Shire of Ashburton said in a statement in November 2018 that it was concerned about the poor condition of the road and asked travellers to use an alternative route until they’ve established a maintenance program.

The road formally called the Roebourne-Wittenoom Road, is the responsibility of the Shire of Ashburton. For the bulk of 2018, however, the staff of the Shire have not been able to grade or maintain the road for it to comply with WorkSafe advice, especially insofar safe practices for works on roads that are contaminated with asbestos are concerned.

Rob Paull, CEO of the Shire of Ashburton, said that the primary reason for the road’s lacking maintenance since March 2018 is the growing awareness and concerns around the extensive asbestos contamination on the road. As a result of these concerns, management of the development of complex asbestos had to take action to reduce risk to workers.

In the meanwhile, Main Roads agreed to, upon completion of the asbestos management plans and the approval of a program of works, undertake the maintenance of stage of 3 of the new road, which consists of a 50km section that stretches from the Python Pool turn-off to the second Rio Tinto rail crossing. The works were expected to completed by December 2018, but Main Roads gave notice to the effect that completion estimate can be extended to this year.

As a result of all these developments, the Shire of Ashburton recognised that the road deteriorated to an extremely poor condition and, consequently, now strongly urges drivers not to use the road, and to find alternative routes in the area. In 2019, Main Roads closed the road to users.

The problem is that the road between Tom Price and Karratha is a vital strategic link to all the role players in the area, including the community, the region’s pastoralists, and the local industry. The road’s condition and the fact that it is now, in effect, completely unusable, has a significant impact on the residents and businesses in the area and, ultimately, the local economy.

Despite problems that the asbestos contamination and the resulting lacking maintenance and poor road condition cause, the Shire of Ashburton states that safety comes first.  They will not subject maintenance workers to asbestos exposure. The first challenge is to remove the asbestos from the road.

A spokesperson for Main Road, Dean Roberts, said that Main Roads would carry out maintenance for stage 3 of the road upon completion of the works, but there exists no agreement for them to take over responsibility for the rest of the route between Tom Price and Karratha.

Vince Catania, who is the North West Central MLA, shares the Shire of Ashburton’s concerns about the condition of the road and the safety of workers and road users. He feels, however, that the State Government should play a more integral part in clearing the road of asbestos and also to maintain it and seal it completely.

According to Vince Catania, a problem that receives little attention is the health of the thousands of drivers who used the road over the past fifty years. Health issues that result from exposure to asbestos can sometimes take years before showing. In some cases, workers were diagnosed with cancer or asbestosis thirty years after inhaling asbestos fibres.

Since the construction of stage 3 of the new road between Karratha and Tom Price is facing a delay that could last months, removing the asbestos from the roads is of the highest priority.

Many role players that are involved, including North West Central MIA Vince Catania, feel that the State Government could have prevented the delay. They say that asbestos was transported out of Wittenoom for many years, and contamination of the roads in the area is a foreseeable circumstance.

In addition, the asbestos contamination of the road between Karratha and Tom Price was first reported in 2016. The first step is to clear the road of asbestos to allow for future sealing. According to Transport Minister, Rita Saffioti, the earliest time for safe removal of the asbestos on the road was during late December.

What is Being Done to Remove the Asbestos?

According to a report from the Shire of Ashburton on 10 January 2019, Main Roads advised that they are not able to open the road for travellers due to ongoing concerns with the condition of the road and the asbestos contamination.

Stage 3 of the Roebourne-Wittenoom road between the end of the bitumen seal at Python Pool and the Rio Tinto rail crossing is not accessible for road users. The Shire of Ashburton didn’t provide the community with any definitive dates on when stage 3 of the new road will be available for use. According to the Shire of Ashburton, Main Roads are working to remedy the situation.

According to Midwestern Environmental in the United States, removing asbestos from a road is an extensive project that has to carried out meticulously while following prescribed safety regulations to mitigate health risks associated with inhaling asbestos.

During the clean-up process, asbestos is never shovelled or swept with a broom, nor should compressed air be used to remove asbestos from an area as these methods redistribute asbestos fibres into the air. The project to remove asbestos from the Roebourne-Wittenoom road is being carried out by certified professionals with HEPA equipped vacuums.

After completion of the asbestos clean-up, the plan is to consolidate the two contracts for the completion of stage 3 under one contract to speed up the process and minimise delays. The State Government will award the contract in April 2019 to allow for the project to be completed in September 2019. It follows, then, that the asbestos clean-up should be complete around April.  

The current plans involve having and aerodrome going into the Flinders mine site to enable a fly-in, fly-out workforce. However, if the road is sealed in time, BBI Group will be able to base operational jobs in Karratha and Tom Price on a DIDO roster.

The communities and partakers in the local industry in Pilbara are looking forward to the substantial economic and social benefits that lie in store with the completion of the project.

City Mayor of Karratha, Peter Long, says that although the delays have been disappointing, he is hopeful that the State Government will do everything they can to ensure that there are no further delays and that if there are, they won’t impact BBI Group’s workforce planning.

Completion of the road between Karratha and Tom Price will also result in shorter travel time between the two towns and to the popular Karijini National Park.

The first hurdle remains, which is the clean-up of asbestos on the road between Tom Price and Karratha. If the asbestos is not entirely removed, Main Roads will not be able to seal the road, and there will be further delays in construction.

At the moment, there is a degree of risk of asbestos-associated conditions such as cancer, asbestosis, and mesothelioma among the community and road users.  When the asbestos is removed, however, it will mitigate these risks significantly and be a step towards ensuring that this area is healthier and suitable for the people living in the area.

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