GREG RAY: Either home or hosed

Paul Harris
Paul Harris

I FEEL a bit sorry for coalminer Paul Harris, who spoke this week against a bid by his employer, Rio Tinto, to mine right up to the doorstep of Bulga village, where Paul lives.

Speaking out can’t have been easy, but Paul said it was a choice of his home or his job.

And he’s certainly copped plenty of criticism from the mining industry cheer-squad, which generally manages to make it seem as if every fair dinkum bloke in a hi-vis shirt lives only to dig up rivers and flatten hills, no matter who might be in the way.

But in among the orchestrated squealing against his stand I did note a few self-avowed miners who admitted feeling a little sorry for the behaviour of their all-powerful employers.

I can understand how they feel, at least to some extent.

When I read about the awful mess left behind by the former Pasminco Sulphide lead and zinc smelter, I feel a bit of a pang.

After all, that dirty old factory fed and clothed me and my family for many years.

My dad worked there as a draftsman and project engineer, and I did a three-month stint in the clean-out crew that used to help maintain the furnace.

The money was good and Sulphide wasn’t a bad employer, as these things go.

But it was a dirty, polluting and dangerous place that, in retrospect, ought never have been in northern Lake Macquarie.

It’s easy to say that now, though. The factory is long gone, and you can speak ill of it today without being attacked for undermining jobs and livelihoods.

There was a time, of course, when some people regarded the smelter as a sort of sacred cow, just as some now seem to regard the mighty transnational miners that own our governments and control the destiny of our poor old valley.

Back in the day, pointing out that the Sulphide plant where we worked was poisoning the community and leaving a toxic legacy in the environment was seen by some as a kind of vicious heresy.

“You’ll be sorry if your whingeing forces the place to close,” they used to say.

And in a way they were right. It is sad that all those jobs and paypackets have left our town, never to return. Just like it was sad when BHP closed, and just like it’s always sad when one of the giant mining companies decides to give some of its workers the flick.

Humans still smelt lead and zinc, and the bad news is that some of the factories where that activity now happens are a lot worse for people and the environment than Sulphide was, when it closed.

Yes, the jobs at Boolaroo’s Sulphide were hazardous, but not as bad as some overseas smelters where women in saris sweep up lead dust without even a dust mask.

I asked my dad, recently, how he felt about all the bad publicity my current employer, the Newcastle Herald, is giving the dodgy clean-up operation that happened after Sulphide closed. He just shrugged. It was all probably true, he said.

Then he started counting off horror stories about working at the plant over the years. The time he had to visit the furnace to take some measurements. He did just that, then walked away, only minutes before molten metal burst out all over the spot he’d been standing.

There were numerous terrible accidents involving molten metal and machinery, not to mention the continual dangers and incremental harm from the constant exposure to various toxic materials on the site.

My blood lead level, for example, went from 11 micrograms a litre to 25 over three months, despite my determined use of respirators and other safety gear.

That sounds bad, but it’s nothing like the men who topped the 40s (some of them considered respirators to be sissy and wouldn’t wear them). I wonder, sometimes, what effects those high lead levels had.

It’s the nature of industry that we trade off risks and costs for benefits, and some of those risks and costs aren’t even ours to bear, but fall instead on the environment, on other people, other species and on the future – none of whom get much or any say in the matter.

Mostly we take the pay-cheque and turn a blind eye, telling ourselves we have to eat. That’s true too, but there must be a line.

For Paul Harris the line was crossed at the point where job threatened home.