Toxic Truth: Flaws exposed in toxicity tests at home near Pasminco

Professor Mark Taylor.
Professor Mark Taylor.

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SERIOUS flaws have been exposed in government-sanctioned testing done to determine the level of toxic pollution at homes surrounding the old Pasminco smelter site in north Lake Macquarie.

Experts have warned that the soil testing method used may have led to unreliable results and diluted the level of lead pollution found, denying residents a chance to have their properties remediated.

Questionable expert input, no follow-up and inadequate quality control are just some of the deficiencies of the controversial Lead Abatement Strategy uncovered by the Newcastle Herald’s ongoing Toxic Truth series.

Now the Herald can reveal that the method used to take soil samples by contractors working for Pasminco administrator Ferrier Hodgson did not meet the required Australian guidelines.

Instead of taking samples from the top two centimetres of soil in residents’ yards, where most lead is found, samples were taken from the top five centimetres instead.

Macquarie University environmental scientist Mark Patrick Taylor said the the testing method used meant that the results may not accurately reflect the level of dangerous lead at people’s homes.

The test results were used to determine if residents qualified for clean-up works, with the majority deemed ineligible.

Professor Taylor said the Australian standard for testing lead in soil, approved in 2000, should have been used for the abatement strategy works carried out two years ago.

‘‘Contaminants are in the top part of the soil, when you are dealing with atmospheric dust it’s just useless to sample so deep,’’ he said.

‘‘It’s all in the top soil and that is the soil that kids play in which is the major health concern.’’

A joint Newcastle Herald-Macquarie University investigation late last year revealed dangerously high levels of lead contamination are still present across more than 10 square kilometres, home to more than 5500 people.

Test results from the abatement strategy compared to Macquarie University’s vary significantly at the same properties.

In the majority of cases, Ferrier Hodgson’s testing found less lead in people’s yards than the Macquarie University tests. 

This is despite the fact that the abatement strategy was designed to adequately cover the pollution to protect residents.

The news has inflamed fears about health and property values among residents.

Boolaroo Residents Action Group spokesman Jim Sullivan described the abatement strategy as an ‘‘absolute joke’’.

‘‘It is very clear to us that it was only there to make it look like something was being done,’’ he said.

‘‘We have very little faith in the strategy and the authorities that approved it.’’

The EPA, which described the abatement strategy late last year as the ‘‘most comprehensive program of its type in Australia’’, said this week it was aware of the sampling issue and it was being investigated.

The residents group held a public meeting to discuss concerns about the ongoing lead contamination issues at Club Macquarie in February.

Ferrier Hodgson declined to comment.