Australias Asbestos Anomaly
(Important update: February 19, 2015 see end of article)
According to the asbestos section in the Mineral Commodity Summaries 2015 (pages 22 and 23) of the United States Geological Survey (USGS), which was published on January 30, 2015, 5% of the asbestos imported and used in the United States in 2014 was chrysotile sourced from Australia, a country which banned asbestos in 2003. Imports from Australia were, explained the USGS either from stocks or transshipments because Australia no longer mines asbestos.
Attempting to clarify the situation, enquiries were made with Australian and U.S. sources. Peter Tighe, CEO of Australias Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency, confirmed that it is illegal to export Asbestos from Australia under Regulation 4 (1) of the Customs (Prohibited Exports), which prohibits export of asbestos or goods containing asbestos with some limited exceptions, notably:
the asbestos is, or goods are, hazardous waste as defined in section 4 of the Hazardous Waste Regulation of Exports and Imports) Act 1989; or
an exemption has been granted by the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission, the Seafarers Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Authority or the Minister administering the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Act 1991; or
the goods are raw materials (mining ore) that contain naturally occurring traces of asbestos.1
A spokesman for the USGS said that according to the U.S. Census Bureau, in April and October 2014 there were two shipments classified as asbestos from Australia to the U.S. of six tons and one ton respectively. Commenting on the apparent anomaly, he wrote
We know the U.S. imports weren't raw asbestos from mining in Australia since there is no asbestos mining there and it is unlikely that permission would be granted to export raw asbestos from Australia (which eliminates asbestos from old stocks). There are a couple of other options. The first and most likely explanation is that some other product was reported under the HTS code for asbestos. Unfortunately, the Census Bureau does not release enough information about the shipments to verify this supposition. A second option is that the shipments may have been asbestos from China that was being handled by an Australian-owned company with the shipment incorrectly attributed to Australia (owing to the headquarters location) rather than China (the source). This is a less likely scenario given that the U.S. hasn't imported raw asbestos fiber from China for the past 19 years. It also isn't likely that the shipment was asbestos waste material for disposal owing to the costs.
For the time being the situation remains unclear; once 2014 U.S. trade data has been finalized this month, further attempts will be made to clarify the situation.
February 12, 2015
Update Mystery Solved!
On February 19, 2015, clarification was received from the United States Geological Survey which had, upon our request, investigated the Australian asbestos anomaly. Additional U.S. import data has confirmed that the asbestos did not come from Australia. The incorrect statements will be corrected in the asbestos section of the 2014 Minerals Yearbook which is due out in June/July 2015.
1 Regulation 4 (1) of the Customs (Prohibited Exports) Regulations 1958 Reg 4