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CSIRO sues contractor after fridge power left off, rare samples destroyed

Christopher Knaus

Published: December 28 2015 - 11:30PM

A simple flick of the switch has allegedly cost the CSIRO millions of dollars and destroyed years of painstaking research. 

In an extraordinary civil case, the government's national science agency is suing an occupational safety company for accidentally leaving the power off to a fridge containing extremely rare samples collected for plant and crop research.

Scientists at the CSIRO's Black Mountain complex first noticed something was wrong in February 2006. 

A distinct smell was coming from a fridge in the Herbarium Microbiology Laboratory.

The fridge was used to store a rare collection of rhizobia, soil bacteria that live on the roots of legumes, helping to fix nitrogen in a process called "biological nitrogen fixation".

The CSIRO says the collection, being used for advanced crop research, took years to collect and was worth "many millions" of dollars.

Some of the strains were obtained from the most remote, arid areas of Australia.

Upon investigation of the smell, a scientist quickly found the fridge to be turned off at the power point.

The CSIRO has launched action in the ACT Supreme Court against four defendants, Testel Australia Pty Ltd, Thermal Air Services Pty Ltd, and two associated individuals.

It alleged that the power was turned off to enable equipment to be plugged into a testing device, before being plugged back in at the wall. 

The power switch, however, was allegedly never turned back on.

"The cost of replacing the plaintiff's collection of rhizobial strains will be many millions of dollars," the CSIRO's lawyers alleged in their claim.

"The plaintiff's collection of rhizobial strains is crucial for scientific research to enable the improvement of various plant species, including commercial crops."

The agency, represented by the Australian Government Solicitor, alleges the defendants had no system of work to ensure power points were turned back on. 

It alleges that the defendants failed to reasonably use the CSIRO's facilities by:

- "Turning off the power to the rhizobial refrigerator  for several days so that it is no longer able to preserve the valuable collection of rhizobial strains."

- The companies should have known that the fridges and freezers contained organic material, which would be destroyed if the appliances were unplugged.

- One of the defendants had been in the lab many times before, in his duties as the manager of a refrigeration supply business.

But the defendants have denied the majority of the allegations, as put by the CSIRO.

They deny leaving the power off, having breached a duty, or being negligent. 

Even if they were found to have been responsible, the defendants allege that the CSIRO itself contributed to the loss by its own negligence.

They argue the CSIRO failed to adequately secure the fridge's contents, or put in place proper systems to protect the strains in the event that the power was left off. 

That could have included a back-up power source, or an alarm or warning system in the event of power loss.

The CSIRO is also alleged to have failed to tell the defendants that the contents of the fridge could be destroyed or damaged if not refrigerated, or provided proper training or preparation.

The case remains before the ACT Supreme Court, and came before the deputy registrar, Grant Kennealy, in early December.

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