Residents treated like 'second class citizens' after Pasminco closure

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AFTER more than 100 years of Pasminco polluting land in north Lake Macquarie, hundreds of affected residents received little more than an education pack.

Residents feel like they’ve been treated as second-class citizens over a state-approved project to deal with properties poisoned with lead and other contaminants from the old Boolaroo smelter.

They have labelled the project a disgrace, failure and sham, following a Newcastle Herald  investigation that has revealed deep inadequacies.

The project was called the Lead Abatement Strategy – the state government secretly approved it in 2008.

Most properties involved in the strategy received only an education pack on lead pollution.


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Some had lead-contaminated yards covered with a thin layer of soil, rather than soil removal. The strategy did not include dust removal inside house roofs and wall cavities.

Macquarie University testing this year of dust  inside houses in the area recorded lead pollution at levels that breached national standards for health investigations.

Additionally, the tests showed high levels of lead contamination remaining in the yards of many properties surrounding the old smelter site.

Some contaminated yards had no work done under the lead abatement strategy because they were covered with grass, which authorities considered a sufficient barrier. This was despite lead pollution being found in the soil above national standards for health investigations.

The old Pasminco site at Boolaroo.

The old Pasminco site at Boolaroo.

Macquarie University Professor Mark Patrick Taylor said the ‘‘failure to clean up properly’’ had left a ‘‘legacy of environmental contamination’’. Professor Taylor said this included ‘‘neurotoxic dusts – arsenic, cadmium and lead among others – that will continue to debilitate the community’’.

He described the Lead Abatement Strategy as ‘‘wholly inadequate’’.

‘‘Lead has a half-life of at least 700 years, which means generations to come will continue to ‘enjoy’ the failures of the clean-up.’’ he said.

Boolaroo Action Group spokesman Jim Sullivan said the act of covering the contaminants was a metaphor for the government’s handling of the matter.

‘‘It was a cover-up – that’s what I’d call it,’’ Mr Sullivan said.

Ferrier Hodgson director Richard Bastow said the abatement strategy ‘‘finished two years ago’’.

‘‘It was done in accordance with council and government requirements,’’ Mr Bastow said. ‘‘It was an opt-in free program, we spent a lot of money on it and we were quite happy with it – it’s run its course.’’

NSW Environment Protection Authority director of contaminated land and environmental health Craig Lamberton said Ferrier Hodgson had ‘‘done a very good job’’.

‘‘When Pasminco went broke and abandoned the place and administrators took over I thought this was going to be an absolute disaster,’’ Mr Lamberton said. ‘‘It has worked out pretty good and we’re pretty happy with it.’’

Residents, however, remain concerned the abatement strategy will leave people – particularly children – exposed to lead poisoning.

Ferrier Hodgson said it had spent ‘‘millions’’ on the abatement strategy, but did not give a figure.

Mr Lamberton said remediation of the Pasminco and Incitec Pivot sites, along with the abatement strategy, cost Ferrier Hodgson ‘‘in the order of $100million’’.

Asked if he knew the cost of the abatement strategy alone, he said Ferrier Hodgson ‘‘won’t share the information with us’’.

Mr Sullivan said there were ‘‘two classes’’ of action to deal with the pollution from the smelter.

The Pasminco and Incitec sites received proper remediation while the abatement program for residents was substandard, he said.

‘‘Pasminco’s land has been cleaned up, at least we think so, and they’ve given us a second-rate job,’’ Mr Sullivan said.

Action group member Stan Kiaos said residents had been taken advantage of.

‘‘It’s disgraceful,’’ he  said.

Professor Taylor said the strategy was a ‘‘classic example of industry needs [economic factors] coming above those of community needs [environmental health]’’.

He said this process had created ‘‘significant environmental injustice for the community’’, on top of more than 100 years of smelter operations, which ‘‘contaminated, poisoned and damaged the lives’’ of many children.

‘‘It boils down to money, greed and weakness of government to enforce full and permanent remediation,’’ Professor Taylor said.

But Mr Lamberton said the strategy had ‘‘focused on getting the best outcome for the community’’.

‘‘We can’t waive a magic wand and fix legacies of 100 years of poor industrial practices,’’ he said.

The government approved the Ferrier Hodgson-run abatement strategy as a voluntary and free program offered to residents.

The Herald obtained a copy of Ferrier Hodgson’s final report, done in 2013. The three-page report said about 1150 properties participated.

It said 783 properties were given ‘‘educational material’’ about the problem and 437 were recommended for ‘‘abatement works’’ –  364 properties agreed to participate.

Many residents initially resisted the abatement strategy but said they agreed to participate after politicians, authorities and Ferrier Hodgson convinced them it was their last chance to have contaminated land dealt with.

To participate, residents had to sign a waiver stating they wouldn’t take any action against Pasminco.

Professor Taylor said the strategy appeared to be a legal manoeuvre aimed at stripping residents of rights to have their properties properly remediated.

Ferrier Hodgson argued that health experts and government authorities found the abatement strategy to be appropriate.

Government documents show the abatement strategy had to be done ‘‘to the satisfaction’’ of NSW Planning’s director-general and the NSW Environment Department.

Lake Macquarie MP and former mayor Greg Piper said Lake Macquarie council told the government it did not consider that the Lead Abatement Strategy went far enough.

‘‘The government of the day signed off on it in agreement with Ferrier Hodgson,’’ he said. ‘‘I have to say, overall it has ameliorated the risk [but] that it doesn’t mean it has taken it away. There is obviously still material there, but we always knew that would be the case.

‘‘It wasn’t about removing it in all instances it was about capping it, diluting it, those sorts of things.’’

A FLAWED grid was used to establish which north Lake Macquarie residents were eligible for a strategy to deal with polluted properties, a Macquarie University study has found.

The study reflects concerns from a former official, who said hundreds more properties should have been included in the Lead Abatement Strategy, which the NSW government approved to deal with pollution from the old Pasminco smelter.

The government used a ‘‘lead contamination grid’’,  established in 1995, to decide who could participate in the  strategy.

Boolaroo Action Group spokesman Jim Sullivan helped establish the grid when he was an environmental health council officer.

Mr Sullivan said the grid was put together ‘‘roughly and on a limited budget’’, with the boundaries of Cockle Creek, the lake and Munibung Hill. It mainly included the suburbs of Boolaroo, Argenton and Speers Point.

Mr Sullivan said there were hundreds of other properties in Warners Bay, Macquarie Hills, Booragul, Teralba, Edgeworth, Cardiff and Glendale that were potentially contaminated with lead.

This was confirmed by Macquarie University soil and dust sampling this year that found elevated levels of lead and other metals outside the grid.

NSW Environment Protection Authority director of contaminated land and environmental health, Craig Lamberton, said the grid was based on homes in an area identified in a 1995 commission of inquiry, formed when Pasminco wanted to expand.

‘‘That process established about 2000 homes in areas defined as being affected by fallout from the smelter,’’ Mr Lamberton said.

The EPA negotiated with the NSW Department of Health and Pasminco administrator Ferrier Hodgson ‘‘for a process to do a clean-up of those sites where there was elevated levels of lead dust’’.

‘‘These were the properties [where] we knew the [abatement] strategy would have the most impact on people’s health,’’ Mr Lamberton said. ‘‘It was offered to 2500 properties, more than the original grid, and covered Speers Point, Argenton and Boolaroo.

‘‘About half, 1200 properties, took up the free offer.’’

He said the strategy included a ‘‘big education campaign, with about 780 people given educational material about the lead issue in their backyard’’.

Mr Sullivan said the grid was originally established not to determine lead-contaminated properties but to decide in which areas children should be tested for elevated lead levels in blood.

Mr Lamberton agreed that the grid was the area in which children’s blood was monitored for lead. Blood-lead levels fell when the smelter closed in 2003, he said.

Pasminco administrator Ferrier Hodgson told the government it was ‘‘appropriate’’ that the abatement strategy rely on the grid, documents show.