The costly battle to build in Boolaroo

UNHAPPY: Trudi Field and Martin Robertson, of Boolaroo, have spent $70,000 to get a dirt-covered backyard due to pollution from the former Pasminco lead and zinc smelter. Picture: Marina Neil
UNHAPPY: Trudi Field and Martin Robertson, of Boolaroo, have spent $70,000 to get a dirt-covered backyard due to pollution from the former Pasminco lead and zinc smelter. Picture: Marina Neil

FROM the street, there is little sign of the ongoing battle Trudi Field and Martin Robertson are having trying to build in Boolaroo.

It has taken three years of planning and $70,000 for the couple to get a dirt-scraped yard.

They are trying to subdivide their 890-square-metre block and build a house at the back to help fund their retirement. 

But the couple fear they could be defeated by cost thanks to pollution from the former Pasminco lead and zinc smelter.

“It’s cost us almost $70,000 so far and we’ve got nothing,” Ms Field said. “Imagine what we could have done with that money if we weren’t forced to clean up Pasminco’s mess.”

Lead-contaminated soil has meant the couple has been forced to remediate the site before building.

Initially they were told they had to scrape a layer of soil off the block and replace it with clean soil. 

Because there is nowhere in the Hunter to dump the contaminated soil, they were quoted $454 a tonne to dump it in Sydney. The bill, without transport costs, would have been more than $63,000.

“We want to know what Lake Macquarie City Council is doing with all the lead soil they dig up, it’s everywhere around here,” Ms Field said.

“Are they doing all the expensive testing and work that residents are forced to do?”

We have followed all the rules and it's cost a fortune. I just don't understand why residents are being burdened with the cost of cleaning up Pasminco's pollution.

Boolaroo resident Trudi Field

Fairfax Media reported earlier this month that the council refused to reveal where it is dumping the soil.

There is no waste facility in the Hunter licensed to accept lead soil.

“It seems to be one rule for us, the residents, and another for them,” Ms Field said. “There is no consistency in the whole system.” 

Unable to afford to take the soil to Sydney, Ms Field said council agreed to let them do a “cap and contain” method.

This involved trucking in clean soil and spreading it across the yard. The cost, including consultants, was about $25,000.

A spokeswoman for Lake Macquarie City Council said council and residents faced the same problem.

“Residents are able to cap-and-contain material on-site or remove it from site under an approved remedial action plan,” she said.

“In the past, we have disposed of soil contaminated above the health investigation level of 300 parts per million in the Pasminco cell. That option is no longer available to us. As a result, our standard practice is to cap-and-contain material on-site when we are undertaking capital works projects in the city.”

Hundreds of tonnes of dangerous heavy metals were emitted from the stacks of the Pasminco smelter over 106 years.

Lead can cause health impacts, especially for young children and unborn babies, including learning problems, hearing loss, slowed growth and behavioural problems.

When the smelter closed in 2003, toxic pollution was left across large parts of Boolaroo, Argenton and Speers Point.

Hundreds of homes still contain levels of lead in soil significantly higher than national health guidelines of 300 parts per million. For a development application to be considered, residents in the contamination zone must test and remediate the soil.

Residents were previously able to dump lead-contaminated soil at no cost in a containment cell on the former Cockle Creek smelter site. The cell was capped in early 2015, leaving residents with nowhere in the Hunter to take lead-contaminated soil.

Following the Newcastle Herald’s award-winning Toxic Truth campaign, the NSW Government agreed to find a way for residents to safely dump the soil in the region.

But the dumping is no longer free. Once a containment cell is finished at Newcastle City Council’s Summerhill Waste Management Centre, residents will receive a “reduced rate” after the $138.20 waste levy is waived.

The fee will be $275 per tonne.