THE DETECTION of asbestos in drilling fluids used on Origin Energy sites has prompted a handful of investigations both within the company and across Queensland.
Origin, the operator of the Australia Pacific LNG project, suspended drilling across 12 rigs after being informed that an imported product used in drilling fluids, known as Nutplug, had been found to contain asbestos.
Origin was quick to act, not only making the decision to halt drilling, but quarantining all stocks of affected material.
The company also called in specialist waste removal experts to enable a safe disposal of the product after informing the authorities.
Origin has launched its own independent investigation into the incident, and has since sourced an alternative drilling fluids supplier.
The company was made aware of the contamination after being notified by product supplier Australian Mud Company (AMC), a subsidiary of Imdex.
Imdex withdrew the product from the market after being notified that “certain batches of Nutplug may contain a small proportion of asbestos,” it told the Australian Securities Exchange.
Imdex managing director Bernie Ridgeway told Oil & Gas Australia that the incident was out of left field and reiterated they had no idea asbestos was contained in the Nutplug product upon suppling it to Origin.
Mr Ridgeway would not be drawn on how many batches of Nutplug contained the asbestos or how wide-spread the contamination could be, but did say the chances of people being affected were small.
Imdex would not reveal the origin of the product when asked by Oil & Gas Australia, except to say the group was a reputable supplier.
However, Oil & Gas Australia has been made aware that the product was sourced back to an unidentified Chinese supplier.
A spokesperson for the Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Mines said the Department had become aware of the supplier adding the asbestos for unidentified reasons.
“The Chinese company added a small quantity of asbestos to its Nutplug product for reasons as yet unknown but failed to inform companies it supplies of this fact,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement to Oil & Gas Australia.
“The Petroleum and Gas Inspectorate immediately alerted other petroleum and gas operators about this imported Chinese Nutplug and requested they take appropriate action to determine whether it was being used in their drilling operations and, if so, to cease its use.”
The inspectors also met with AMC to determine if the Nutplug additive had been supplied to any other companies operating in Queensland.
“The department was advised the Chinese manufacturer of Nutplug does not supply this product to other Australian suppliers; and that no other petroleum and gas companies operating in Queensland are using this particular Chinese product,” the spokesperson confirmed.
“This supply problem is easily rectified by petroleum and gas companies not using the Nutplug product sold by this Chinese supplier.”
Nutplug is a natural cellulose product made from ground almond, walnut or pecan nut husks sometimes added to drilling mud fluids as a granular lubricant to reduce the drag and torque of drill pipes and collars.
An Origin spokesman told Oil & Gas Australia that natural nut-based products, such as Nutplug, were routinely used by the drilling industry all over the world.
Origin would not provide details on its quality control testing procedures of fracking products and would not provide information on whether this incident may spark a review of its procedures governing imported products.
An Origin spokesperson said normal health and safety protocols had been followed with the handling of Nutplug, including wearing face masks and other appropriate attire.
Origin’s initial part of the investigation has been completed, but health checks for the affected employees are still underway and could take weeks or even months to complete.
While Origin has since restarted operations on five of the suspended drilling rigs, the Queensland Government’s Petroleum and Gas Inspectorate is continuing to closely monitor precautionary testing being undertaken by Origin at all of the affected drilling sites.
Workplace Health and Safety Queensland has also stepped in as an independent investigator, having requested a copy of analytical results of air and swab tests taken prior to, and during, the clean-up of the work areas where the product is mixed before it is sent to the drill rigs.
Oil & Gas Australia was also informed that the Petroleum and Gas Inspectors and a Queensland Government Safety in Mines Testing and Research Station (Simtars) asbestos expert were visiting affected Origin drill rig sites to observe and monitor testing and clean-up activities.
While the incident is not an industry wide contamination issue, it has bought to the forefront questions over health and safety accountability in an industry which is already under heavy scrutiny by parts of the community and environmental groups.
Lock the Gate Alliance national president Drew Hutton said the Queensland Government must bear its share of the blame for the incident, while CSG companies also need to step up.
“These drilling fluids are injected into the drilling hole and into the aquifers adding to the possibility of contamination of those aquifers but Origin, along with other CSG companies, have been telling us for years that these fluids are completely safe,” he said.
Asbestos is a category one human carcinogen and the main known cause of mesothelioma. China, is among the world’s top asbestos consumer and producer, alongside India and South America.
While the manufacture and use of asbestos products in Australia has been banned since 2003, the Asbestos Related Disease Support Society of Queensland (ARDSSQ) told Oil & Gas Australia that more than 300 known new exposure cases were reported to it in 2013.
ARDSSQ society secretary Ray Colbert said he was disgusted that importing products safely into Australia was becoming more lax.
“Prohibition against asbestos applies for every industry,” he said. “This is a concern”.
Mr Colbert suggested random auditing of imported products should be introduced by companies to prevent a repeat of this incident.
While the extent of the asbestos exposure is still being determined by Origin, exactly who would be liable if a worker or community member were to fall ill remains up in the air, especially when the effects of asbestos related illness don’t appear until many years after exposure.
Turner Freeman Lawyers partner Kacey Wuelfert told Oil & Gas Australia that a person would only be entitled if their health was impaired as a result of an asbestos-related disease.
“In terms of an individual suing for their exposure, this is not possible unless he or she develops an asbestos disease with impairment which would be 20 to 40 years down the track,” Ms Wuelfert said.
Ms Wuelfert suggests that people concerned about having been exposed to asbestos note the details of the incident and report it to their employer or the Department of Health.
Origin is providing specialist support to those that may have been exposed to the drilling fluid additive and has also set up a specialist hotline.