Brightwater quarry company Lee Processors is optimistic they’re on the right track to resume mining serpentine rock for fertiliser, after being forced to stop production due to test results showing higher-than-permitted levels of asbestos in their product.

A 750-tonne shipment of rock was enroute to Tauranga in June when Lee Processors received laboratory test results, analysed by a modified procedure, which showed some of the serpentine it had been mining contained more than the acceptable workplace limit of asbestos, despite previous tests showing it to be well below the limit.

The shipment was placed in quarantine and returned to the quarry.

Lee Processors Asbestos Management Plan calls for any quarry area that’s about to be mined to be tested for naturally-occurring asbestos before it is mined, and only to be mined if asbestos is below `Trace’ levels. This was done, and results received were well below `Trace’ levels, but later tests shared with WorkSafe and their customer would show otherwise.

An unfortunate casualty of a New Zealand laboratory’s failure to provide accurate results when testing for asbestos, Lee Processors owner David Irvine says they were only mining the area where the rock was extracted because of the results showing less than `Trace’ levels.

The consequences have been far-reaching.

Moving more than 18,000 tonnes of rock each year, the closure has affected their staff and customers, as well as carriers and the shipping company.

The laboratory Lee Processors used is the same one used by WorkSafe and David says it’s possible that dust in the product masked fibres during testing, giving an incorrect result. After an altered procedure was put in place where it was pre-washed, much higher levels were shown.

The laboratory, based in Christchurch, is probably more familiar with testing concrete and tile samples, and David says, in hindsight, providing them with a product vastly different in nature could have presented some difficulty.

It’s tough because we were doing everything right but still get caught in an issue like this,” says David.

David met with WorkSafe on Thursday, October 4, for a discussion on the company moving forward and is confident they have an acceptable plan.

“It involves us putting our own lab in place and taking charge of the initial analysis of our product and having the results verified by a specialist asbestos lab.

“We have to be in a position where our customers can have confidence in the product we produce.”

Others in the industry have previously expressed distrust in New Zealand laboratories and opted to outsource to Australia, where their testing methods appear to be more accurate.

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