Toxic Truth: Childhood spent in waste water creek

LEGACY: Robyn Hoogwerf  spent a lot of time swimming in playing in Cockle Creek as a child, and over the past 20 years has had 105 hospital visits. Picture Phil Hearne
LEGACY: Robyn Hoogwerf spent a lot of time swimming in playing in Cockle Creek as a child, and over the past 20 years has had 105 hospital visits. Picture Phil Hearne

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 ROBYN Hoogwerf swam in it, dived in it and bathed in it, and now she is sick.

As far as the 57-year-old is concerned, the health impacts from the old lead and zinc smelter at Cockle Creek have been ignored by authorities for too long.

Mrs Hoogwerf has a chronic illness where her immune system attacks the nerve endings of her muscles and she has had numerous skin cancers.

The mother of two has been admitted to hospital 105 times in the past 20 years.

‘The water was always warm and you floated easily’

Robyn Hoogwerf remembers a childhood playing in Cockle Creek

A former Argenton resident, she was one of hundreds of children who spent nearly every afternoon playing in the waterway that ran from the smelter to Cockle Creek.

“The water was always warm and you floated easily, we used to float from the little creek into the big creek,” she said.

“We had a cubbyhouse under the bridge and we all used to meet and play down there. If someone got a cut you would put it in the creek and it would heal really quickly.”

There was never any talk of pollution or neurotoxins in Argenton in the 1960s and ’70s. The children regularly got earaches and boils, but they never connected it to the creek.

It wasn’t until 1997, following a community action group campaign, that the smelter was ordered to stop discharging highly toxic effluent into the waterway where generations of children played.

A 2002 state government investigation found high levels of lead, zinc, cadmium and mercury in sediment stretching three kilometres, to a depth of 70 centimetres in Cockle Creek and Cockle Bay.

“Mum used to smell the water on us and she would get really cross,” Mrs Hoogwerf said.

“She knew there was something wrong and when we would get home she would make us close all the windows so we didn’t have to smell the Sulphide [plant].”

Argenton Public School was so close to the industry, teachers relied on the smelter’s bell for lunch and recess.

Mrs Hoogwerf left school at age 14 because she struggled to concentrate, as did her two brothers and many of her friends.

Her brother was offered a job at the smelter after school but their father refused to let him take it.

“There was no way dad was going to allow that,” she said.

“We were all the same, we all found school difficult and I look back now and wonder if it was the lead.

“I asked when I was first diagnosed a long time ago if the illness could be linked to the pollution and they said it was possible.

“What happened to the people living around the Sulphide was wrong and there are many people still dealing with the aftermath.”

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