Toxic Truth: Esperance lead clean-up best practice

A tanker  docked at the Esperance Port in Western Australia
A tanker docked at the Esperance Port in Western Australia

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COMMUNITY pressure forced the West Australian government to act following a 2007lead contamination incident in the  town of Esperance.

 The $25.7million clean-up project that followed is now considered to be an example of world’s best practice for urban lead decontamination.

The deaths of thousands of wild birds initially alerted residents to a toxic hazard, which was traced back to the unsafe transportation of lead ore by truck and rail from a mine at Wiluna to the port at Esperance.

Elevated levels of lead were also found in children and some adults, as well as in water tanks.

‘‘At first the government told the community it wasn’t a big problem but we weren’t satisfied,’’ Esperance Clean-up and Recovery  Project steering committee community representative Michelle Crisp said.

‘‘So we went and did our own testing and showed the government they needed to do something.’’

Works undertaken as part of the three year, government-funded clean-up included: cleaning the roofs of 433premises, cleaning roof surfaces, gutters, downpipes and rainwater tanks at 1144premises, cleaning external and internal surfaces including carpets at 1648premises.

‘‘In addition to the roofs, a lot of work was done to clean surfaces that children came in contact with,’’ Ms Crisp said.

An independent audit of the project concluded: ‘‘the procedures developed for the Esperance Clean-up and Recovery Project, the manner in which the team delivered the project and the community input have combined to allow a robust, technically justifiable and comprehensive clean-up and validation of the Esperance townsite.’’

The remnants of the lead contamination incident were no longer considered a risk to humans in 2010. 

A survey of those involved in the project revealed an overall satisfaction rating from the Esperance community of 94per cent.

‘‘Overall it was a pretty thorough clean-up; we were pretty lucky,’’ Ms Crisp said. ‘‘My heart goes out to the smelter towns. We only had lead pollution for 18months; smelter towns have generations of dust built up in them.’’  

The West Australian Department of Environment and Conservation also imposed  licence conditions on the port  to ensure all future metal concentrate exports do not cause  health or environmental problems. 

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