LEAD Action News

LEAD Action News vol 5 no 2  1997 ISSN 1324-6011
Incorporating Lead Aware Times ( ISSN 1440-4966) and Lead Advisory Service News ( ISSN 1440-0561)
The journal of The LEAD (Lead Education and Abatement Design) Group Inc.

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Point Source Community Reports

by Robin Mosman, NSW Community Lead Advisory Service (CLAS)

A significant part of the charter of the NSW Community Lead Advisory Service (CLAS) is to provide support, in response to a request for help, to residents and community organisations in the major point source communities of Boolaroo, Port Kembla and Broken Hill.

  • In Boolaroo, a suburb 20 km south-west of Newcastle, lead contamination has been caused by Pasminco Metals Sulphide's lead-zinc smelter.

  • At Port Kembla, a southern suburb of Wollongong, lead contamination has come largely from a copper smelter previously owned by Southern Copper Pty Ltd, an Australian/Japanese partnership, now owned by Port Kembla Copper, a wholly Japanese consortium.

  • Broken Hill is an historic lead mining and smelting town, where the line of lode runs straight through the centre of the town. Skimp dumps and tailings ponds are a feature of the landscape. The mine is currently operated by Pasminco.

Boolaroo

The community action group NO LEAD was formed in Boolaroo in 1990 when a Public Health pilot study revealed a significant lead contamination problem in the area, at the same time as 2 major accidents which were widely felt in the community occurred at the plant.

The main focus of the group is on child health and the environment. They realised early that they would need to be proactive far beyond their own small community to be successful. They have acted locally, State-wide, nation-wide and internationally to achieve their aims of:

  • rapid reduction of Pasminco emissions;

  • lowering of the National Health and Medical Research Council acceptable blood lead level in 1993 from 25 g/dL to 10 g/dL;

  • remediation of the Boolaroo community;

  • recognition by the OECD countries of the effects of lead on workers, and highlighting of Australia's poor record in dealing with lead issues.

They have always attempted to look at the total picture of lead - including petrol, paint and the need for education (see article entitled "Lead - from the Boolaroo Smelter to Your Car Battery" by Theresa Gordon of NO LEAD, commissioned by CLAS and published in LEAD Action News V5N1). They acknowledge that there have been major improvements at the Pasminco plant; however, they think the industry still has a long way to go in order to operate really safely and responsibly within the community.

A great deal of NOLEAD's work is currently with some of the most lead-affected people in Boolaroo. Although Pasminco purchased properties closest to the plant to create a buffer zone, those whose proper- ties were not inside the buffer zone include lead-poisoned children and their desperately concerned pa- rents, and elderly people whose homes constitute their only asset. For many of these people, the devaluation of their properties by the lead contamination has made relocation virtually an economic impossibility.

Also, recent remediation of the homes of some lead-poisoned children has actually resulted in their lead levels going up, after months of painstaking, time-consuming housework and care by parents had previously brought their levels down somewhat. NOLEAD spokesperson Theresa Gordon has spoken of "the unimaginable distress" this has caused parents already stretched to the limit.

NOLEAD are particularly concerned that a zonal approach should be taken to remediation. At the moment, the focus of remediation by the North Lake Macquarie Remediation Committee (with representatives from the Environment Protection Authority, the Health Department, Council, Pasminco and the community) is on the homes of individual lead-poisoned children.

NOLEAD's view is that children don't just live in a house, they live in a community. These children live in a community that is contaminated. There is no point in just remediating a particular child's home when that child may spend a lot of time visiting a grandparent, neighbour or friend whose home may be as badly contaminated. They see the policy of individual remediation as an attempt by government and Pasminco to keep the problem focused on individual families, instead of genuinely accepting their joint responsibilities for the contamination of the whole community.

NOLEAD have recently resigned from the Remediation Committee in protest at the individuation of the remediation process. They continue to lobby outside the Committee for zonal remediation, and to question the remediation protocols which have caused the elevated blood lead levels.

They also have concerns about the procedure currently being used to test soil at the homes of lead-poisoned children. A spokesperson stated that it was a procedure that was discredited years ago at Port Pirie, the smelter town in South Australia. The unknown rationale for the recent Remediation Committee decision to do lead testing of houses where children do not have elevated blood lead levels has also caused concern. NOLEAD have not been successful in requiring this decision to go before an ethics committee before being implemented.

NOLEAD approached CLAS recently for assistance with research on the problem of elevated blood lead levels after remediation. As a result of research supplied by CLAS showing overseas blood lead levels not elevating after remediation, NOLEAD have been able to request the Remediation Committee to justify their claim that a rise in levels after remediation was a "normal" overseas experience. They have also challenged the continued use of a protocol for remediation that causes elevation of blood lead levels. CLAS has established that the soil-sampling procedure being used involves taking five soil samples from the top 50 mm of soil on a residential property, specifically excluding soil under downpipes and soil near painted buildings or fences. All the five samples are mixed into one sample which is analysed for lead. The procedure is specifically designed for Boolaroo properties, according to Joe Kostiw of Newcastle EPA, in order to determine the soil lead contamination which could be attributable to fall-out of lead from the point source - the smelter. It is not designed to give parents answers as to where in their yard it is safe for their kids to play, nor to determine which areas of soil in the yard need remediation.

For NO LEAD, the ability of CLAS as an information service to assist them by the provision of relevant and accurate information is proving critical to their ability to make informed decisions and take appropriate action. Throughout their 6 years of activity on behalf of their community, they have been hindered by the difficulty of obtaining essential information, on occasions being actually denied access to such basic documents as Pasminco’s Development Application and Feasibility Study. This has resulted in them becoming strong advocates for Community Right to Know legislation.

NOLEAD sees another great benefit in access to CLAS for its troubled community. Theresa Gordon said recently: "Because of the way things have gone here, you have to be either for Pasminco or for NO LEAD. But whichever side they support, people in Boolaroo have a lot they need to talk about. They need access to someone else, someone independent. They need to know there's somewhere to go on an individual level to ask their own questions."

Port Kembla

CLAS was recently contacted by a representative of the Port Kembla Public School Relocation Committee, who is also a member of IRATE (Illawarra Residents Against Toxic Environments).

In 1996 he Department of School Education funded an Environmental Lead Assessment Report of lead levels in soil at the local public primary school. Half the 26 samples of soil tested contained greater than 300 parts per million (ppm) lead, ranging up to 1581 ppm, 5 times the NSW level requiring further investigation.

Parents and staff at the school, concerned at the proximity of the currently closed Southern Copper smelter, have been lobbying the NSW government to have the school moved. At the time of contact with CLAS, the Premier had already said that if the smelter breached its licensed emission levels during the first twelve months after the smelter re-opened, the school would be moved. The Relocation Committee were not satisfied with this, claiming that the children and staff would be being used as guinea pigs, and that there was already adequate historical evidence to justify their mistrust of future safe operation.

CLAS supplied the Relocation Committee with a considerable amount of information about lead, particularly its effects on children's learning ability; and examples of campaigning handouts used by another group to successfully raise public awareness and lobby.

A month later, CLAS was informed of the success of the Committee's representations. The NSW Department of School Education has agreed to relocate the school. The cost of relocation will come from $2,000,000 the company has agreed to pay to purchase the school site. The Committee hopes to continue to have an important role in the school, possibly through representation on the School Council.

In mid April 1997, IRATE published its first newsletter. The chairman of IRATE has also regularly liaised with CLAS, and says, "It’s great that the school is being re-located." IRATE argues that this will cut children’s exposure to fall-out from the stack and protect them from accidental releases of toxic fumes, but school children only spend 13% of the year at school. To truly protect all the young children who live in the shadow of the smelter, the smelter would have to remain closed and children would need to be protected from chronic exposure to historical contamination of roof dusts and soil, et cetera. "Continuous community education and remediation programs are essential for the area."

Broken Hill

In late November 1996 CLAS was contacted by a Broken Hill resident, mother of 3 lead-affected children, with a desperate problem. The rail line from Broken Hill to Port Pirie, the smelter town in South Australia, runs right behind her street, a street with "about 70 children under 12" living in it. Uncovered rail trucks loaded with lead and zinc ore concentrate travel this line. As they gather speed, clouds of lead concentrate dust billow from the trucks across the homes of these children. "Last week it was like an atom bomb going off, a great big purple black balloon of dust."

"There are children in the street with blood lead levels of 34 and 36 g/dL. A little boy in the next block had a blood lead so high he had to be chelated. Three years ago my kids were 27 and 29 g/dL."

"I've been complaining for 5 years. Every time they say they'll spray with water. They do it for a few weeks and then stop. Lately it's been worse because they're drying out the loads. Dampened loads were causing problems with the machinery at Port Pirie so they've started drying them out at Broken Hill first, and the dust problem has been much worse."

The mother is desperately concerned about the effects of the lead and zinc on her children. "I'm at my wits’ end. My 3 kids have got low I.Qs, headaches, nausea, vomiting, aggressive mood swings. They have all the classic symptoms of lead poisoning." The parents have done everything possible to remove the lead from their children's environment. "We've ripped up all our carpets, $4 to $5 thousand worth of nearly new carpets, and replaced them with tiles; we've grassed, paved, replaced wooden windows with aluminium." The dust from the railway trucks makes a mockery of all their efforts.

Totally frustrated after 5 years of trying to get something done, she finally took some photos which graphically depict the extent of the problem - "When I showed the photos to the Broken Hill Environmental Lead Centre, they were appalled, but said they don't have the authority to do anything about it. The Environment Protection Authority said the train is on Pasminco land and they can't do anything about it." She went to the Department of Mineral Resources - "He said ‘O God I didn't realise it was this bad’ and said he would speak to the mine manager; to Broken Hill City Council; to the Health Department. She went to the local paper - "The Barrier News is owned by the mine, they can only print what the mine will let them print. They said they would talk to Pasminco."

"The mine people say I'm just an hysterical woman complaining. It was only because I stormed their offices and showed them the photos that Pasminco were prepared to start talking to me. No-one helps. It's so bloody frustrating. The government just lets them go."

In the course of talking with this woman, CLAS discovered that many other children in the street had serious health problems, and that "The street are ready to organise. At least 36 families I've spoken to have had it." An earlier group which had organised and lobbied and were "getting a lot done" had received death threats by phone in the middle of the night; however, she said she was prepared to start rallying other residents. CLAS suggested to her that the most important things to do were to get a small support group together and to document a health profile of the street. When this information was available, CLAS promised referrals to media contacts who might be interested in the issue.

Before their survey was received, a media release from Broken Hill alerted the press to the fact that new-born babies born there have higher than expected blood lead levels and that more than half the babies blood lead levels nearly triple in the first 6-7 months of life. CLAS was able to refer this gallant woman to the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) journalist who was flying to Broken Hill to cover the story. Her story appeared in the SMH on Saturday, 12.4.97. [See an article about the study, on the following page.]

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