EPA not up to its own rhetoric on how to handle lead contamination from north Lake Macquarie

FRUSTRATED: Boolaroo resident Mark Hambier tried for months to find a place in the Hunter to dump lead soil from his yard and eventually gave up. Picture: Marina Neil
FRUSTRATED: Boolaroo resident Mark Hambier tried for months to find a place in the Hunter to dump lead soil from his yard and eventually gave up. Picture: Marina Neil

THE chain of events that led to the unresolved debacle of where to dump up to a million tonnes of toxic lead soil from north Lake Macquarie was government by media release.

Internal documents obtained by Fairfax Media under freedom of information laws reveal the Environment Protection Authority’s plan was all about big ideas and big announcements, but little or no solutions.

More than two years ago residents were promised a Hunter-based solution for dumping toxic soil created by the former Pasminco lead and zinc smelter. Today, they are still waiting.

While the politics of waste is normally eye-glazingly dull, this lead-fuelled stoush that has dragged in Newcastle City Council, Lake Macquarie City Council, the EPA and Lake Macquarie MP Greg Piper has reached a point of high farce that would almost be entertaining if residents weren’t caught in the middle.

A frustrated Mr Piper said it was time the parties “worked together” to find a “sensible solution”.

“It really shouldn’t be this hard,” he said. “We’ve been arguing for this to happen for a long time and we still aren’t there, it’s disappointing to say the least.”

Boolaroo resident Mark Hambier wasted months trying to find a place to dump up to 50 tonnes of lead soil, but eventually gave up and decided to bury it on his property. For a development application to be considered in the contamination zone, residents must test and remediate the soil.

“The whole thing was an absolute joke,” Mr Hambier said. “They make all these announcements about it, but can’t live up to their own promises. It’s like they want to be seen to be doing something, rather than actually doing it. They’ve made it that hard people will just start dumping it illegally.”

When the smelter closed in 2003 it left large swathes of land in Boolaroo, Argenton and Speers Point polluted by heavy metals to be cleaned up at residents’ expense. 

With no tip in the region licenced to accept the soil, the EPA’s public push for a solution began in August 2015 when it announced Newcastle council was investigating building a containment cell for the waste at Summerhill tip.

But according to an email written in October this year, detailing Newcastle council’s involvement in the long-running saga, investigations revealed the initial proposal would not work.

“We looked at their requirements and advised we could not implement them in a cost effective manner,” council’s environmental compliance manager, Gavin Cooksley, wrote.

He went on to detail a series of approaches about the lead soil over years from the EPA followed by silence and then haste preceding the circulation of media releases.

According to Mr Cooksley’s email, the EPA contacted the council again in January 2016.

“The EPA were pushing for a speedy resolution,” he wrote. “We explained competing demands made it difficult to progress the project…We heard no further from the EPA on that proposal.”

Another approach was made almost a year later in December 2016. The expert working group appointed by the state government to investigate the contamination was due to report its finding to the then environment minister Mark Speakman.

The EPA knew the report was about to be made public and wanted to get on the front foot.

On December 14 the environmental watchdog emailed Newcastle council’s then chief executive Peter Chrystal asking for help.

“If we can quickly reach in principle agreement on this, we would like to have an ‘announceable’ for the Minister’s imminent receival of the Lead Expert Working Group’s report into lead contamination issues in the North Lake Macquarie area (as soon as next week),” an EPA representative wrote.

“Obviously the details would take some time to work through over the months ahead.”

Eight days later, on December 22, the EPA issued a media release telling residents they could dispose of the soil at Newcastle’s Summerhill tip from February.

The deadline came and went.

According to Mr Cooksley’s email, the council then “heard nothing” again from the EPA on the proposal until August 2017, “when it was again an urgent priority to resolve the approvals and commence receipt”.

“Once the approvals were finalised, the EPA released a media statement advising we would be able to accept the material a week later,” Mr Cooksley wrote.

The media release was issued on August 3 informing residents the soil would be accepted from August 14. What the media release failed to explain is just how the council planned to accept the soil.

In a letter to the EPA dated July 28, 2017 – six days before the media release - council’s waste management manager Darren North detailed that due to the “small domestic type quantities expected” council would require the soil loaded into 800kg bulka bags.

“While this is practical for the small loads that have been indicated by the EPA, it must be noted there have been strong indications that there is a high probability that large commercial loads from redevelopment activities are likely to arise,” he wrote.

“This is in contrast to the numbers and quantities previously discussed.”

In an email on August 8, Summerhill’s waste and landfill supervisor Oscar Gallagher warned against rushing the process.

“A rushed disposal is increasing concerns, rather than alleviating them – including my own, particularly regarding our legal responsibility to maintain a duty of care to employees and customers,” he wrote.

Under a trial change to the tip’s licence the EPA approved it to accept 2000 tonnes of lead soil over two years.

The council started accepting the waste in bulka bags from November which Mr Piper admits is not a “workable solution” due to the volume of soil some residents are trying to dispose of.

Earlier this month the EPA directed media requests about dumping lead soil to Newcastle council and council directed requests about large loads to the EPA. 

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