Class action weighed as Port Hedland dust causes public health concern

 Aerial shot of Port Hedland in the Pilbara in Western Australia.

PHOTO: Port Hedland is the largest iron ore loading port in Australia. (Supplied by BHP Billiton)

A potential class action lawsuit is brewing in Western Australia’s north over a rise in respiratory conditions and increased mortality in an area of town, which residents fear may be linked to dust from heavy industry.

Key points:

  • Law firm flags potential class action over dust particles
  • Government-commissioner unveils health issues in Port Hedland
  • But link needs to be proved between heavy industry dust and health

The concerns relate to a WA health department report released in January into the impact of dust particles, known as PM10, on residents living in mining town Port Hedland’s historic West End district.

The report found evidence of “certain health outcomes that show an increase in all-cause mortality and an increase in hospitalisation for respiratory conditions”.

DeLancey Legal director Leonie Bailey said today the firm had been approached to discuss the grounds of a class action lawsuit.

“Despite the growth and advances in technology, there’s still a requirement for corporate responsibility by business and there’s still a duty of care owed by the authorities,” Ms Bailey said.

“There’s courses of action here — one is for pure economic loss, and that’s for landowners who now realise their property values are in some cases half of what they were … and the other is on medical grounds.”

However, Ms Bailey said any potential claims would need to satisfy certain criteria before being lodged.

“From a legal perspective of course there has to be some firm evidence with regards to the causation of the pure economic loss and personal injury as well,” she said.

“The claimants would need to establish a causal link between the dust and the report that’s been released.”

Town’s investment future on the line: resident

Port Hedland residents met on Thursday to discuss the report at a public forum.

Mayor Kelly Howlett, who also addressed the forum, said while the town supported the property rights of residents in the West End, she did not feel residents launching a class action would be constructive.

“In terms of developing our local planning scheme 6, we’re keen to work with all the agencies … and importantly the community on how we can ensure that the West End is protected going forward,” Ms Howlett said.

“I think it’s still quite early — we haven’t even had the Department of Health or State Development come to town and present to the public yet, and we also haven’t had industry or the Port come back yet in terms of what their commitments are.”

Port Hedland resident Bill Dziombak said all the uncertainty surrounding the air quality assessment report had damaged the reputation of the town.

“It’s done one thing and that’s stifle progress in Port Hedland,” Mr Dziombak said.

“It’s destroyed confidence in investors and it’s stalled the main and the most significant infrastructure in Port Hedland’s history [the marina].”

Despite this, Mr Dziombak said he believed it was possible for industry and residential areas to co-exist.

“The resonating message last night across the community was that the Port needs to regulate the port usage to control the dust — the people were here long before industry,” he said.

“When an industry moves into a residential area, it creates a problem — it’s up to industry to fix the problem, not the people.”