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Australian Driller Takes Asbestos Drilling Mud Very Seriously

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Queensland, AustraliaWhat follows is a good indication that drilling mud, in spite of the knowledge we possess concerning the dangers, can still contain asbestos. It’s also indicative that this is a global problem. That said, there are operators out there who take it very seriously and are prepared to act.

Not all do.

However, this is an example of an operator from Australia doing the right thing when presented with an asbestos drilling mud problem.

According to a summary published in Australian Mining (3/13/14), Origin Energy (Origin) was notified by its supplier, Australian Mud Company (AMC), that a product known as NUTPLUG that was occasionally used in oil drilling mud, was found to contain asbestos.

Origin didn’t bat an eye. The driller immediately suspended operations at 12 active drilling sites until it could be determined if the drilling mud potentially affected by asbestos was being used. “All stocks of affected material have been quarantined and accounted for throughout the supply chain from storage warehouse to sites, and specialist waste removal experts are in the process of removing that material from each location for safe disposal,” Origin Energy said in a statement.

AMC, the drilling mud supplier, also announced it had withdrawn the suspected asbestos drilling mud and was undertaking an investigation to determine its source and the means by which the dangerous product managed to migrate into the supply chain.

Many a drilling mud lawsuit has alleged that drillers utilize asbestos drilling mud for its insulating and heat-dissipating properties, without concerning themselves with the safety of those who handle the substance. Various stories have surfaced where a mud engineer is engulfed in asbestos dust during the process of mixing the drilling mud, the source material for which often arrives in powdered form. There have been numerous allegations that employers have taken no steps to protect their workers from the dangers and carcinogenic properties of asbestos - and employees were kept in the dark.

Lawsuits have also alleged that operators may not have known about the drilling mud problem, but should have.

Asbestos was a mainstay in the industrial sector until the 1970s, when heightened public awareness of its cancer-causing properties prompted many industries to ban its use. However, asbestos is still processed and actively used in various parts of the globe, especially under-developed and emerging economies.

Australia is not one of them. “Our highest priority remains the health and safety of everyone associated with the project,” Origin said. “Specialist support is being provided to those that may have been exposed to the drilling fluid additives and a specialist hotline has been established.

“In the interim an alternative product has been sourced.”

Airborne asbestos fibers, when ingested into the lungs, can lay dormant for decades before finally emerging as asbestosis, asbestos mesothelioma or asbestos cancer. There is no known cure. While asbestos is not banned completely in the US, its use is severely restricted to a few, limited industrial sectors such as the automotive brake industry. Demolition or renovation of old buildings containing asbestos insulation and other asbestos-based products have given rise to the creation of an industry dedicated to the safe eradication of asbestos - and guidelines are in place to assure the safety of workers and the public at large.

In many cases, however, these guidelines are not adequately followed.

As for the oil drilling industry, oil drilling mud remains an integral mainstay of the drilling process. However, as the Australian example points out, asbestos is no longer a necessary component in oil drilling mud.

In other words, effective drilling mud doesn’t have to be asbestos drilling mud. There are alternatives, and the Australian example speaks to the need for vigilance. It’s the least an operator can do to ensure that drilling mud additives are not sufficient to cause serious illness, or even death, amongst those tasked with working with the stuff.

Australian Mining reported March 19 that Origin had re-started drilling at five rigs in Queensland, but only after the suspected asbestos drilling mud was removed, and only after substantive airborne and surface testing confirmed that asbestos was not present. The remaining seven rigs would resume following similar testing and clearance.

Many a US-based drilling mud engineer felled by drilling mud chemicals, might well wish the same degree of precaution had been taken here…

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