Toxic Truth: Lead levels in slag ‘30 times over safe limit’

Jim Sullivan with some of the black slag exposed along Marmong Point. Picture: Max Mason Hubers
Jim Sullivan with some of the black slag exposed along Marmong Point. Picture: Max Mason Hubers

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TOXIC black slag has been found in public areas in Lake Macquarie, containing poisonous lead up to 30 times above recommended health levels, a Macquarie University report has found.

Researcher Anthony Morrison, who compiled the report, said if humans came into contact with the lead, it  could  be absorbed into the body and pose health risks.

“About 50per cent will end up going into your blood – that’s what the research says,” Mr Morrison said.

Macquarie University researcher Anthony Morrison.

Macquarie University researcher Anthony Morrison.

He said this applied to fine particles, which were common in slag pollution in Lake Macquarie.

“Go down there and play with that black slag and have a look at your hands when you’re finished – all of that is fine particles,” he said.

Children were particularly vulnerable to the poison because of hand-to-mouth behaviour.

“The adverse health effects of lead on small children are well documented,” he said.

Experts say lead causes intellectual deficits, anaemia, hearing and behavioural problems, and learning difficulties in children, and reproductive problems and kidney disease in adults. 

Mr Morrison said his research demonstrated it was a myth that the ‘‘glassy nature of the slag prevented leaching of the toxic elements’’.

This was “absolute rubbish”, he said.

The EPA told the Newcastle Herald last year that slag was ‘‘bound up in a glassy matrix’’.

It conceded that slag could leach, but said lead dust posed a greater risk.

Mr Morrison, though, maintained the slag’s fine particles, if ingested, posed a serious health risk that should not be ignored.

His research was based on samples from Tredinnick Oval, Speers Point, the reserve alongside Cockle Creek and Eleebana.

Mr Morrison said the slag contained “extremely high levels of lead and zinc, high levels of arsenic and moderate levels of antimony”.

The university report follows a Herald investigation last year, which found slag with lead up to eight times recommended levels in areas around the popular playground at Speers Point.

A sample taken on the Eleebana shore in front of houses on Bareki Road recorded a lead level five times above recommended levels.

Boolaroo Action Group spokesman Jim Sullivan raised questions about Lake Macquarie MP Greg Piper’s position on the slag issue and whether he accepted its risks.

Marmong Point since the storm exposed black slag along with waterfront. Picture; Max Mason-Hubers

Marmong Point since the storm exposed black slag along with waterfront. Picture; Max Mason-Hubers

Mr Piper is chairman of the Lead Community Reference Group, which the EPA formed to deal with Pasminco pollution in response to the Herald’s Toxic Truth series on the subject.

Mr Piper was adamant he had been concerned about the slag problem for years.

“I have always been concerned about the propensity for black slag to release lead and other metal contaminants,” Mr Piper said. “I was the first person on Lake Macquarie City Council to raise this issue, as a councillor in 1992, and later, as mayor, argued strongly against the exclusion of properties with lead slag from the lead abatement strategy.

“We know slag becomes more dangerous when it is exposed to UV light, acidic conditions or is physically altered through a process such as pulverisation. 

“That is why as a councillor I undertook to stop slag being used for grit blasting on local development sites and why I have always advocated a policy of removal or containment of exposed slag on playing fields and in other public areas.

“What has always frustrated the approach to this issue is that we don’t know how much of it is out in the community and where it all is.”

Mr Piper said the “issue of how to best manage the slag problem is one of the terms of reference of the expert working panel”.

“I understand Anthony Morrison has been invited to present his findings to them in the near future,” he said.

“I think it is important that his work is part of the panel’s literature review and informs its deliberations.”

The slag was spread across large areas of Lake Macquarie and other areas in the Hunter over decades.

Jennifer Silvey and Ray Broadbent, with their dogs Roxy and Khardi,  say people often picnic in the Marmong Point area. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

Jennifer Silvey and Ray Broadbent, with their dogs Roxy and Khardi, say people often picnic in the Marmong Point area. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

Mr Morrison said Pasminco production figures suggested 1.5million to 2.3million tonnes of slag were distributed in the community from 1961 to 2000.

The council used it in public reserves, parks, ovals, the lake shore, paths, kerbs and roads. Many residents used slag to landscape backyards.

The Herald reported in December that Pasminco knew as far back as 1992 that slag was leaching into the environment and could be absorbed by humans, but it kept the information secret.

A council document, obtained by the Herald under freedom-of-information laws, revealed that from 2004 to 2010, the council ‘‘advocated for the black slag legacy to be managed by the EPA’’.

However, the problem had remained in the council’s hands.

The EPA said it ‘‘understands that council has a process to manage black slag on private and public land’’.

‘‘The EPA has been working with council to provide further advice for residents in north Lake Macquarie about the removal and disposal of lead slag contaminated soil,’’ the EPA  said. ‘‘As part of this work, the EPA undertook testing in the north Lake Macquarie region to determine an appropriate waste classification for the soil.’’

The old Pasminco smelter at Boolaroo before it was decommisisoned and dismantled.

The old Pasminco smelter at Boolaroo before it was decommisisoned and dismantled.