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Victory against Riotinto


Drillbits & Tailings

Volume 5, Number 12, July 20, 2000


RioTinto made a stunning, yet almost un-reported, admission of negligence and liability in poisoning hundreds of people with its Capper Pass tin smelter near the English City of Hull. In June, the company began a process of settlement that according to the Yorkshire Post, a local paper, could open the compensation floodgates for former workers and families who claim their health was blighted by exposure to noxious chemicals.

On June 1, lawyers representing RioTinto called David Russell, Senior Regional Solicitor to the Transport and General Workers Union, who has been fighting the company for years over pollution emissions at Capper Pass. Russell was told that the RioTinto "will not contest" negligence, and admits it is "very concerned" about the problems. The company also said that it will not try to contest their claims based on a statute of limitations. For almost two decades the company denied that it had any legal liability or any responsibility whatsoever for Capper Pass. The government appears to have also covered up the problems there.

Over a five-year period in the mid-1980s, children aged 12 15 living in west Hull villages were confirmed to be suffering from cancer. Seven of them have since died. The law firm that Russell works for had prepared a report documenting another 400 cases of contamination by the smelter. It says cancer among workers, who were not properly protected from exposure to lead, arsenic, cadmium and radioactive substances, was "staggeringly high". The report was to be released on June 5 _ the week after RioTinto offered to settle _ and now may never be made fully public as part of the terms of the settlement.

"I feel a great sense of tragedy rather than triumph in that so may people have suffered, particularly young children. But there is no doubt about it - it's a massive step forward and a real breakthrough," said local campaigner Rilba Jones, explaining the community’s response to the news of RioTinto’s acknowledgment of guilt.

Now the plan is for compensation to be paid by RioTinto according to the merits of each individual case. These merits will be decided by a "mutually agreed procedure" formulated by a to-be-established tribunal. It has taken several years for the community to force RioTinto to accept responsibility for the pollution and to start making amends.

RioTinto acquired the smelter in 1967, and produced between 100,000 and 120,000 tonnes per year, almost 15% of the West’s tin. Many of the by-products were discharged into the Humber River and the East Yorkshire air, including radioactive, carcinogenic and other toxic substances, such as arsenic. The Capper Pass Tin Smelter was closed in 1991, "decommissioned" meaning cleaned-up and deconstructed in 1995, and then sold by RioTinto to a "third party". The site however still remains contaminated.

In 1971 lead and arsenic was found in cattle that grazed near Capper Pass. Livestock and crops had to be condemned on several farms. The local Medical Officer wrote that "the situation .. may cause public alarm should the facts become generally known".

In 1985 Capper Pass’ management insisted that it would continue to discharge considerable quantities of arsenic into the Humber River despite opposition. The British Ministry of Agriculture, Fishers and Food (MAFF) found up to six times higher arsenic levels in Humber river fish than anywhere else in British estuary waters, and found that this was the result of Capper Pass discharges. But management said that reducing such waste would mean cutting back production and profits. According to a 1986 confidential report from RioTinto, each tonne of arsenic processed translated into approximately US$100,000 of "added value" because it was not disposed of properly.

The dumping continued, but by 1988 the severity of the situation could no longer be hidden. A multi-disciplinary team of the British Health and Safety Executive (HSE) finally carried out a major investigation into Capper Pass. The HSE told the Company that they had contravened and were continuing to violate multiple sections of the Health and Safety at Work Act, the Factories Act, and others. High levels of arsenic and cadmium were found in urine and blood of Capper Pass employees. A 43 page report condemning the company was issued in 1990, after the investigation.

Capper Pass was closed in 1991, ostensibly because the price of tin fell, but it is hard to imagine that growing public health concerns did not affect the decision. Since that time it has been a battle for workers, the International Chemical, Energy and Mining Union (ICEM) and those living around the smelter to seek redress from the company for polluting their local environment, river and fisheries. Despite RioTinto's drive in the last two months to acquire other companies _ with a substantial buy-out of Comalco and an offer for North resource company from Australia _ this settlement has potential to seriously damage the mining giant financially.

Business Wire, London, June 1, 2000; "Triumph in Capper Pass fight hailed"

Yorkshire Post 6 June 2000, p4; "A Matter of Paradigms", By Ellen Teague and Frank Nally SSC; pers. comm. with Max Watts, Australia, July 4, 2000.

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