KOORAGANG Island has been used as a toxic waste dump for years.
The island was created in the 1960s when channels between smaller estuarine islands were filled with dredging spoils and former farms were shut down in favour of industrial projects.
BHP reportedly began using Kooragang as a toxic dump around the same time, trucking in about 440,000 tonnes of coal washery and steelmaking waste a year.
In addition to tens of millions of tonnes of this waste, the site is known to contain asbestos, lead-contaminated dust (some buried in drums) and is suspected to have been illegally used to dispose of acidic ‘‘pickle liquors’’.
Apart from the substances dumped by BHP and its subsidiaries during the company’s decades of steelmaking in Newcastle, anecdotal tradition has long held that other people brought other materials to the island before BHP installed gates at its main dump site adjacent to the Tourle Street bridge.
All this is a matter of common discussion in Newcastle. So it was natural, when workers at the island’s industries began to fear they were contracting cancer at an unusually high rate, that the toxic legacy of the past would spring to mind.
Workers suspected that toxins from the massive dump might have been leaching into groundwater and contaminating the water used in a variety of industrial tasks and processes. These included spraying to suppress dust in coal-handling operations.
The newly published report on the cancer cases on Kooragang did not investigate that theory.
What the report has found is that coal-loader operators who had been employed at Kooragang Island had an elevated incidence of cancer. It has also found that incidence increased with time on the job.
The study is not necessarily conclusive, however. The illnesses most commonly involved – melanoma, bowel cancer and prostate cancer – aren’t normally associated with exposure to specific toxins, and the study’s authors concede that a number of factors might have skewed the results.
But the findings can’t be dismissed and, to its credit, Port Waratah Coal Services has been quick to respond with a battery of health and lifestyle-related initiatives for the benefit of its employees.
What is probably needed in the longer term is a comprehensive and long-term system of groundwater monitoring on all sides of the former dump, to determine possible threats it might pose to health and the environment.
Other risk factors can’t be dismissed either, especially in the wake of this year’s Orica air pollution debacle on the island.
Kooragang’s toxic legacy – as well as present-day operations including coal-handling – have been the source of much suspicion and speculation for many years and this new study can only heighten those worries, both for industrial employees and nearby residents.
The study must be regarded as a starting point for a thorough examination of the factors that might be making the island a carcinogenic workplace.