In the shadow of the smelter

Andrew Belk is a writer and filmmaker. He grew up in Boolaroo and attended the primary school shadowed by the lead smelter, as did his father in the 1940s. This story was written on the eve of the smelter's closure, with the smoke stack still standing large over the town. It was first published in the Griffith Review Edition 2 in 2003 as View from Munibung Hill. All the events in this story are real and took place. Some names have been changed.

COME sit upon Munibung Hill with me. When I was a kid we called it Hawkins Hill after the family who owned it. The Hawkins made their fortune carting shit and the tale of how the local shit carters made it big was a suburban legend that stoked our working-class dreams and kept us warm at night.

Below us lies the closest thing I have to a home town - Boolaroo - the "place of many flies". That main road down there is called Main Road. That first street is called First Street. That second street is called Second Street. That third street is called Third Street.

That's Lake Macquarie to the south. It is the biggest saltwater lake in the southern hemisphere. It is great for catching bream and flathead. The dirty-looking creek that flows into the lake down by the bottom of town is called Cockle Creek. Yes, there are cockles in Cockle Creek, but you have to promise me not to eat any.

Newcastle is to the north. It's not far.

Now, that big industrial complex there near First Street - the one with the 84-metre-high chimney stacks - that's Pasminco. It's a lead smelter. Its byproducts include mercury and sulphuric acid. That's sulphur you can smell in the air now and that's why everyone around here just calls it the Sulphide. It reminds me of an old drunk the way it sprawls over the town reeking.

There was no one much around to sniff it when it was built - the indigenous Awabakal people overthrown by the end of the 1830s and replaced by a handful of pastoral lease holders. As the first heavy industry in the Hunter Valley, the stacks became beacons of jobs and opportunity. It's pumped millions of dollars and tonnes of lead waste into the area ever since.

---------------------------------------------------------------------

Do you know more? Want to share your story? Email dpage@fairfaxmedia.com.au

----------------------------------------------------------------------

Come on. Let's walk down together and have a look. On the way I'll tell you a story.

BACK in 1980 my mate Beaker and I were up here getting pissed on 99-cent summer wine. His big sister had got it for us in return for leaving her alone. We had never been pissed before and had no idea we would get so thirsty. Instead of coming back down the hill this way we got lost and rambled about in the sun for hours getting dehydrated. When we found a little gully thick with lantana and a tiny stream at its base we drank as much water as our stomachs would hold.

When we finally emerged from this oasis we found we were a little way down from some sort of rubbish dump.

The first blister appeared a few days later. The doctor at the local clinic unconvincingly diagnosed chickenpox. A week later I was covered in blisters the shape, size and consistency of under-poached eggs. They filled with clear fluid until they burst the skin and leaked blood. The skin would scab and fall off and a new blister would appear. This continued for three months and if you had seen me you would have freaked out. To relieve the monotony of the isolation ward of Royal Newcastle Hospital I would send paper aeroplanes out the window to the beachfront road below. Anyone who unfolded one of these planes would find a scab and a note informing them they would get the 'pox and would die within 48 hours.

Beaker escaped with extended diarrhoea and a vomiting session blamed on heatstroke and cheap alcohol. No one ever did work out what I had. We didn't think to tell the doctors about drinking from the stream and they didn't think to ask. The connection between health and pollution wasn't on the agenda. It was the early '80s - the episode of A Country Practice where Molly's pig died after drinking contaminated water hadn't screened yet.

As the first heavy industry in the Hunter Valley, the stacks became beacons of jobs and opportunity. It’s pumped millions of dollars and tonnes of lead waste into the area ever since.

OK, here we are. The site covers almost 194 hectares but the contamination zone goes about 1.5 kilometres in every direction. Greenpeace reckons this is some of the most contaminated land in the country. The Environment Protection Authority says it "does not meet modern health and environment standards" and in 2003 ordered the company to clean it up until it "no longer poses any threat to the community or the environment".

Almost 400 people work here - some of them fifth-generation smelter workers we can trace back to the very first day of operations in 1897. In that time they have made zinc, sulphuric acid, superphosphate, coal gas, cement and roasted zinc concentrates - whatever they are. Since the '60s they have mostly made lead for car batteries. I find it hard to imagine life without my car battery.

Come this way and check out the town. We call the style outer-suburban-working-poor-meets-near-desperation. Here's something - all these homes here in First Street are owned by the company. So are all of the ones in Second Street and some of the ones in Third Street. In the early 1990s the company bought the lot of them - just like that. It was because testing found that the soil here was contaminated with lead - that the air was contaminated with lead - that the kids were contaminated with lead.

When kids are contaminated with lead they can get sick. They can have behavioural problems. They can have mental development problems. They can have disorders of the internal organs. They can have disorders of the nervous system. They get weird little things that local GPs can't identify. The level of blood lead considered safe keeps falling. At the moment it is 10 micrograms per decilitre. In 1991 more than three quarters of the kids in Boolaroo had levels higher than this.

WHEN this information became public Pasminco appeared proactive. It spent millions upgrading the plant. It helped establish an environmental health centre. It volunteered to carry out possibly the boldest pollution-remediation program undertaken in this country. It was world's best practice stuff - tear down the houses closest to the smelter and build a great big dirt wall. Most of the town was into the great-big-dirt-wall concept. They were disappointed when Pasminco changed its mind after the acquisitions. Instead of demolishing all the houses it cleaned most of them up. It laid new topsoil and turf, sucked tonnes of lead dust out of the ceilings and kilos out of carpets, sealed all the air vents and filled various holes and cracks with Selleys No More Gaps. It then put the houses on the rental market.

This is Roland and his girlfriend Sarah. They rent one of the houses in the remediation zone.

"Guys, we are wondering what attracted you to a house inside a contamination zone?"

"The rent's good."

"How good?"

"Let's just say we aren't complaining."

"Are you concerned about the effect lead in the air may have on your health?"

"Mate, I've lived in Boolaroo all my life and there's nothing wrong with me."

"So, do you have to work at the Sulphide to get one of these special deals?"

"No, mate - I'm on a disability pension."

"OK. So any special requirements to live here?"

"Yeah, a couple of lease conditions. You have to promise to keep the place real clean and vacuum up and wipe off and hose away all the dust and shit. You've gotta promise not to grow any vegies, you can't have any pets or animals and you can't have any pregnant women or kids under 12."

"It says that on your lease?"

"Of course, mate. The lead - it f - - - s with the kiddies' heads."

Pasminco leases the houses from First Street through to one side of Third Street, from the main road up to Munibung Hill, to punters like Roland and Sarah under the same conditions. Yes, the politicians know about it. A commission of inquiry reckons it's fine, reckon it's not a problem, reckons it's all right, mate, that a private corporation has established my home town - Boolaroo - place of many flies - as Australia's first child-free zone.

I should let you know that Roland and Sarah aren't really Roland and Sarah. I can't tell you any of my friends' real names because: "We have to live here and you can just go back to Melbourne and drink lattes."

Residents like them have put it on the line before. When the mainstream media got the taste of a story both A Current Affair and Today Tonight buzzed around asking locals to hold their lead-affected babies high for 15 minutes of blame. The people who responded - assuming their fellow Australians would be outraged and pressure the government to shut the plant - instead became targets.

Despite pleas from Pasminco and "No Lead" for conciliation, things on the street got real. The most vocal of the pro-factory camp took it to the loudest of the anti-factory camp - in the streets, in the pubs and outside the school yard. Death threats. Rape threats. Dead horses. This is what happens when you tell a town its jobs and the health of its kids are mutually exclusive.

OK, here we are now in Third Street. Come stand in the middle of the road with me. This is one of the most magical spots on earth. You are standing in the amazing invisible lead-dust barrier. The houses on your left are the ones that Pasminco bought. The houses that kids and pets and pregnant women and broccoli can't live in because of the danger from lead.

These houses on your right - these are just houses.

Hold my hand.

Skip to the left. Dangerous for kids.

Skip to the right. Safe for kids.

Skip to the left. Dangerous for kids.

Skip to the right. Safe for kids.

Skip to the left . . .

THIS is my friend Sue. She and her family live on the right side of the street. Her husband works for a company that makes fertiliser out of Pasminco byproducts. Incidentally, this fertiliser may or may not have been used to grow your breakfast cereal.

"I'm glad you are here. You can watch the baby for me while I vacuum. She's not supposed to be in the room while I do it."

"Why not?"

"The health department says so."

Have you noticed how spotless the place is? No, she's not anal retentive, she's just under a lot of pressure to keep the place "lead safe". The women of this town have been convinced that lead safety is a housekeeping issue. Notice how neat the yard is as well. That's because around here it's not just grass - it's an organic safety barrier. The kids' lead levels are measured at school. It is a tribute to the women of the town that the levels have fallen but . . .

"You've showered?"

"The health department says that after any hazardous activity you should shower and change your clothes before cuddling your baby."

"Vacuuming is a hazardous activity?"

"They also tell you not to leave your baby near an open window or walk your baby into the wind."

So, does this baby look retarded to you? I can't help but stare into her eyes for signs. Her big brother has been diagnosed with a severe learning disability, you know. Here he comes now. If you look into his eyes can you see it? Has the lead hit his blood? Has the lead hit his brain? Is he going to hit me in the nuts with those giant toy Hulk hands?

"Sue. Why don't you just move?"

"How? We begged them to buy this place. Because we are higher up the hill we had higher lead levels than some of First Street. My lounge room read almost 4000. I've got it down to 259. All I do is clean and wipe and wash all day. All they go on about is cleaning. Every meeting and pamphlet and newsletter goes on and on about cleaning and washing and wiping and that it's your responsibility to keep your house clean. If your kid has a high blood level it's your fault for being a bad mother."

Do you think Sue should be wearing a mask while vacuuming? This pamphlet from the remediation centre says they will lend you a special high-efficiency particle multi-filter vacuum cleaner for jobs like this. Let's ask them.

"Hello, we are calling about the special vacuum that sucks the lead out of your carpet."

"The HEPA vac. It's broken at the moment."

"Oh, how did it break?"

"Well it's not actually broken. We have two but they both need to be serviced."

"OK. When are you going to get them serviced? We want to suck the lead out of our carpet like it says to do in the pamphlet."

"Well, it needs a specialist technician. No one's organised it yet. You can use an ordinary vacuum."

"I really want the special lead sucker one like in the pamphlet. Do you know what we should do?"

"Not really."

They used to send around a van to vacuum the lead out of your ceiling and carpet. They put big signs on the sides that said something like "contaminated waste removal service". They sent the van out on its first day and people started to freak out when this thing pulled up outside their houses. The signs were taken off. By the end of the week, though, the dust filled the sticky bits where the letters had been and everyone could read it anyway.

COME on. Let's go check out my old primary school. My father and my grandmother went there. On the way I'll tell you another story.

One afternoon, after the teachers had left, me and Beaker and a whole bunch of kids were playing in the school grounds. It was great. We were all just running about getting worn out and puffed when the little kids started coughing. Then the middle-sized kids started coughing. Then the big kids started coughing. The air tasted like 20-cent pieces and stuck in you when you swallowed. Some of the kids' eyes started to water and their noses started to snot. After a while it passed and we got on with the game.

That bank of trees over there is new, so is that big grassy mound up there, and that barrier fence. Look, even the old ambulance station has been tarted up. They shut it for a while. When the lead dust levels for the lunch-room came back the union refused to let their blokes work here.

Come on. The school is only a couple of hundred metres from here. Initially the education department wanted to close it down. Some parents agreed - others threatened to chain themselves to the fence in protest.

Look, there're all the parents waiting outside. She's had a hysterectomy. So has she. Not sure about her. Her sister had a breast removed. Her son has ADD. His eldest has leukaemia. His father died of lung cancer. Her nephew has a brain tumour. She had a stillborn child. She's pregnant.

Here's something. The school is closer to the lead smelter than some of the houses where the dogs and the kids and the pregnant women and the broccoli can't live. Fortunately, the amazing invisible lead-dust protection barrier is in use here as well as running down Main Road.

This is my old primary school teacher. He has been here for 25 years. He's a fairly pragmatic bloke. If anyone can make sense of this it will be him.

"Across the road it is too dangerous for children to live because of the proximity to the lead smelter. This school is closer to the lead smelter than some of the child-free zone. It's known that even low levels of blood lead affect the intellect and learning yet the kids are here for seven hours a day - in a school. What should we make of this?"

"It's a paradox."

A paradox walks into a bar. The barman asks: "What will it be?"

THE kids here have been getting their blood checked for lead for more than 10 years now.

This is Ryan. He is eight and a half.

"Ryan, why do you have to get a needle?"

"To see if there is lead in my blood."

"Why do we want to see if there is lead in your blood?"

"Because it's bad."

"Do you know where the lead comes from?"

"From the air."

"Do you know what they make at the Sulphide?"

"Is it sulphide?"

This brown-eyed monster is Ellie. She's six.

"Ellie, why do you have to get a needle?"

"For my blood."

"Do you know what lead is?"

"Yes. It can get on your hands and then you have to wash them."

"Do you wash your hands?"

"Yes. But the boys only pretend. There is a box with a special light you can put your hand in and see the dirt."

"Do you know what they make at the Sulphide?"

"Yes."

"What?"

"Peli!"

Yes, Peli. The groover Pelican who teaches kids around here how to live with lead. His beak is all over the literature of local health and educational organisations. Not too long ago there was a special presentation for a series of Peli books the kids had put together. Jo, one of the mums, will tell you.

"I was watching the kids up on stage and they were doing the lead rap and singing about Peli and about how to keep lead safe. I was really proud of them and all the work they had done being lead safe. Then the Sulphide let out one of those loud bangs . . . you know those loud bangs it makes . . . I looked across at the officials from the Education Department and the Health Department and Pasminco then up at these tiny little faces on stage and I could see the smoke, see the smoke coming out of the smelter behind them and it just hit me. I just started to cry."

Millions have been spent trying to clean this town up. They spent a fortune remediating my little old school, stripping, sealing, painting, planting trees. They dug up the entire grounds and took it away in trucks. They brought a new one in the same way. It all happened quickly - one day the kids and the teachers arrived to be told they had a week to pack up. They were being moved to demountables at another school for the term. Have I mentioned that an independent report commissioned by the local council concluded that remediation was pretty much pointless while the smelter continues to operate. I knew you were wondering about that.

"Wash, wipe, scrape. She'll be right, mate," says Peli the Pelican.

COME on. Walk down Cockle Creek with me and on the way I'll tell you another story.

Beaker and I came down here early one winter morning to find some bait. Most of the town was still asleep. Straightaway we could tell something was wrong because fat walls of steam were climbing from the creek into the air. We walked in a little way and found the water was nice and warm. We thought this was the most tops thing we had seen for ages and soon we were in our jocks and out in the middle of the creek.

All of a sudden Beaker started screaming about something attacking him. Then I felt it. Slimy things nudging at my legs and back. It was mullet: hundreds and hundreds of dead mullet floating down the middle of Cockle Creek.

OK. Here we are. Notice the black gritty sand along the foreshore. That's slag. Slag is a byproduct of the smelting process and there are tens of thousands of tonnes of it around here. It was used as fill for roadworks and parks and sporting ovals and building sites for decades. There are more than 2500 identified slag sites in the area. They're the ones they know about. In the old days you could flag down a slag truck and for a "tenner", or sometimes just a cuppa and cake, you could have a load taken to your house - it's great for lawns and vegie patches and it saved the men a trip. No one knows where it all went.

The local council reckons the slag is fine if it is covered with grass or concrete. They say all the slag in public areas around here is covered with grass or concrete or geomesh.

Now, see those boys over there on the BMX bikes. See how they have piled up the dirt to make jumps. That dirt is slag. Slag is 2.5 per cent lead. Lead rhymes with dead.

Let's ring the remediation centre.

"Hi. We're worried about the danger to children from slag."

"All the slag has been covered with turf."

"There is some exposed slag down on the foreshore at Cockle Creek."

"How do you know it's slag?"

"Are you kidding? Anyway, the site is on a map in that report the council commissioned, the one that concluded that existing exposed smelter slag most probably constitutes a significant risk of harm under section 60 of the NSW Contaminated Land Management Act. Shouldn't there be some signs or something?"

"I can't comment, I haven't seen it."

"The slag?"

"No, the report."

"Is slag dangerous?"

"I can't comment."

"Why not?"

"I haven't seen the report."

Look, the little one is barefoot. What do you think will happen to him?

COME on - let's go read the graffiti on the big wooden barrier fence. On the way I'll tell you a story. Shortly after my visit home the Sulphide factory began to wind down its operations to prepare to close the plant.

By September 16 only 10 people were left. On that day I rang to ask a question but no one answered. Knowing the phone was ringing out to an empty desk inside that big old bastard gave me goosebumps.