TOXIC TRUTH: Residents demand action over contamination

NORTH Lake Macquarie residents demanded the removal of contaminated soil from their properties, as tempers flared at a public meeting over the Pasminco pollution problem.

 Residents demanded a proper clean up of their towns at the meeting, which drew more than 250 people on Wednesday  night.

As the meeting came to a close after about  three hours, some residents became embroiled in heated debates over the best way to move forward.

Boolaroo Action Group held the meeting at Club Macquarie, Argenton, amid anger that pollution from the old Pasminco lead and zinc smelter had not been adequately dealt with.

Residents assert that government failures to deal with this problem has left the public facing serious public health risks and the financial burden of cleaning up a corporate polluter’s mess.

The meeting was held in response to a joint Newcastle Herald–Macquarie University investigation that exposed the failure of authorities to ensure the Pasminco pollution was cleaned up.

The investigation revealed dangerously high levels of lead contamination and black slag remain across the city.

‘‘Our kids are being poisoned,’’ resident Skye Mitchell said.

Others called for a future fund with sufficient money to deal with the remediation of 2500 affected properties, preferably from Pasminco’s assets.

 Furthermore, residents wanted a repository for disposing contaminated soil, including black slag (to be available free of charge).

 The action group made calls for an independent and public inquiry into the Pasminco pollution problem.

Macquarie University Professor Mark Patrick Taylor said the state-sanctioned lead abatement strategy was a failure. 

Professor Taylor told the meeting that the strategy – which was  to deal with pollution in Boolaroo, Speers Point and Argenton – was not best practice and did not work.

He said regulators must ‘‘accept the errors and seek a long-term workable solution’’.

It was important the community engaged on the matter, he said.

‘‘The community now has the government’s attention, which it didn’t have for a long time,’’ he said. 

‘‘Using that opportunity wisely would help us seek a resolution for all.’’

Action group spokesman Jim Sullivan said authorities had been aware of the  problem for 25 years.

‘‘A generation of our children have been exposed to unacceptable health and safety risks,’’ Mr Sullivan told the meeting.

‘‘We need to move forward quickly to deal with this issue.’’

Environment Protection Authority Hunter Region manager Adam Gilligan said an expert working group had been established to consider the matter.

Mr Gilligan said the EPA was taking the matter seriously, a point emphasised with the attendance of EPA chief Barry Buffier at the meeting.

‘‘We don’t yet know the scale of the problem in terms of risk exposure, the solution and the cost of the solution,’’ Mr Gilligan said.

Mr Gilligan said the expert group’s recommendations would be put to government for consideration, even if that involved ‘‘significant expenditure’’. 

But when residents asked about having their contaminated soil removed, Mr Buffier said this was ‘‘probably not going to be the solution for the whole area’’.

Nevertheless, Lake Macquarie councillor Daniel Wallace said the ‘‘only real answer was total removal’’ of the soil, similar to asbestos.

Residents raised concerns about being lumped with  costs of removing polluted soil when they redevelop.

Calls were made for the government to quarantine money made from the Pasminco site redevelopment to pay these types of costs.

Boolaroo resident Joel Field was among several residents angry that senior council officials did not attend the meeting to answer questions about problems redeveloping their properties.

 Fellow resident Darylyn Robb asked who was responsible for the failed lead abatement strategy and how much it cost.

Mr Buffier said he could not give a detailed response because ‘‘this predates me’’.

‘‘What really interests me is what were the end results of the process,’’  he said, adding that reducing child blood lead levels was the objective.

Speers Point resident Roger Carr said the Pasminco site redevelopment must be completed before any further attempts to decontaminate people’s properties occurred.

Mr Carr said dust continued to blow off the Pasminco site, posing contamination risks.

‘‘It’s like an open sore,’’ he said.

One resident raised concerns that the university’s research had been made public through the Herald, but Professor Taylor said: ‘‘Knowledge is power. It’s better to know than not to know.’’