Toxic Truth: Scientist returns to Boolaroo to dig up slag

DIGGING: Scientist Bill Sneddon takes a soil sample along The Esplanade at Speers Point, Boolaroo.  Picture: Marina Neil
DIGGING: Scientist Bill Sneddon takes a soil sample along The Esplanade at Speers Point, Boolaroo. Picture: Marina Neil

THAT’S it. See that black stuff? That’s slag

Bill Sneddon has returned to his old stomping ground of  40 years ago to dig up the past. With a makeshift core sampler he quickly hits upon a slag deposit on the edge of The Esplanade adjacent to Tredinnick Oval, Speers Point.

He remembers dozens of semi-trailers dumping the slick black waste from the nearby lead smelter into swamps surrounding Speers Point Park.

‘‘Tonnes of it was put all along here, there were trucks coming in with loads of it all the time,’’ he said.

The former Kilaben Bay resident and commercial scientist studied alongside chemical technicians from the smelter at Tighes Hill technical college in the mid-70s.

‘‘The guys who worked in the blast furnace were effectively on danger money – a 40 per cent loading,’’ he said. 

‘‘The introduction of mandatory blood-lead testing in the 70s broke that system. The guys were forced to go and work elsewhere for three or four months when their levels got too high.’’

Although officially played down, the potential for lead and other toxins to leach from slag deposits was a concern in the mid-70s.

‘‘There was always a lot of talk about how the chemical bonds in the slag would become unstable the lead would get out into the environment,’’ Mr Sneddon said.

James Cook University scientist and former Boolaroo smelter chemist Jon Brodie confirmed there was long-standing concern about the stability of slag waste.

 ‘‘There was concern among scientifically literate people at the time about the slag but the stock answer was that remaining heavy metals (zinc, lead and cadmium in particular) in the slag were present incorporated into  ‘spinels’ – minerals that would never leach the metals back into water and hence the environment,’’ he said. 

The Boolaroo Residents Action Group will hold a public meeting on Wednesday February 25 at Club Macquarie Argenton starting at 7.30pm to discuss concerns about lead contamination in Boolaroo.

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