Toxic Truth: Lake council avoids safe vegetable growing program

Macquarie University  environmental scientist and lead expert Mark Taylor is the applicant for a $11,000 grant for the VegeSafe program. Picture: Dean Osland
Macquarie University environmental scientist and lead expert Mark Taylor is the applicant for a $11,000 grant for the VegeSafe program. Picture: Dean Osland

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 LAKE Macquarie City Council has failed to take up an opportunity to help Boolaroo residents grow vegetables safely in their lead-contaminated yards.

  The council has passed on  a Macquarie University application for $11,000 towards its VegeSafe program.

At a recent council meeting, Lake Macquarie mayor Jodie Harrison and other councillors directed the application to a state-appointed committee.

Last December Cr Harrison stated  that the council would ‘‘be doing everything we can’’ to ‘‘influence better results’’ for residents affected by Pasminco pollution.

Cr Harrison defended the decision, saying it would be wrong to say councillors had not supported the application. Councillors agreed to accept a recommendation from the council’s Environmental Research Grants Committee, she said.

The committee recommended that the university’s application be referred to the Lead Expert Working Group, which the Environment Protection Authority established to deal with Pasminco pollution.

Cr Harrison said Macquarie University Professor Mark Patrick Taylor was the applicant for the grant and a member of the working group, so ‘‘it makes sense for that group to ensure testing methodology is consistent’’.

Councillors did vote to support the committee’s recommendation to back other research projects on squirrel gliders, dune restoration and the ‘‘immaterial social values associated with Lake Macquarie estuary’’.

A joint initiative  between the  Herald and Professor Taylor, one of the country’s top lead experts, revealed the extent of lead levels in the Boolaroo area last year. 

The aim of university’s ‘‘VegeSafe’’ program was to ‘‘inform the Boolaroo community of the extent of heavy metals in garden soils and provide advice to reduce associated exposure risks’’.

A Lake Macquarie council report said the VegeSafe program’s sampling techniques were ‘‘inconsistent’’ with EPA guidelines.

The report said the differences between the VegeSafe program and information from ‘‘official sources’’ could ‘‘create confusion in the community’’.

Professor Taylor said this was an ‘‘interesting interpretation’’ because the sampling would meet Australian standards for lead-contaminated soils. ‘‘I’m disappointed the council couldn’t see the merits of it for the benefit of people who want to grow vegies in clean soil,’’ he said. A council statement said its report was ‘‘not criticism’’, but ‘‘recommendations as to why or why not applications are successful in obtaining funding’’.

Committee chairman and councillor Barry Johnston insisted that the university’s application was not thrown out: ‘‘The Lead Expert Working Group can put it back to council and request that council fund it.’’