Toxic Truth: Pollution remains, despite 'remediation site' label

Canoists on Cockle Creek.
Canoists on Cockle Creek.

A DECADE after Pasminco closed its smelter at Boolaroo and as the remediated site is due to reopen with new residential and business development, the Newcastle Herald  is examining how much contamination remains  and how it continues to affect  the area.

As part of the investigation, Macquarie University collected  soil and  dust samples from homes and public spaces at Boolaroo, Argenton, Booragul, Teralba and Speers Point.  Half the public sites had unsafe levels of lead and all but one residential site contained elevated lead levels.

THE Pasminco lead and zinc smelter polluted Cockle Creek and Cockle Bay over decades but the mess left behind was never cleaned up.

This was despite the NSW Environment Protection Authority declaring the creek and bay as a ‘‘remediation site’’ in 2002.

Lake Macquarie City Council said it was estimated that year that such a clean-up would cost $225million.

A Lake Macquarie council statement said ‘‘large-scale dredging of contaminated sediments’’ in the creek and bay had not been done because of these ‘‘large financial costs’’.

Additionally, it said there would be ‘‘negative social, environmental and community health consequences of remobilising contaminated sediments’’.

The EPA found the site to be ‘‘contaminated, in particular with lead, cadmium and zinc in such a way as to present a significant risk of harm’’.

‘‘The lead, cadmium and zinc are persistent in and toxic to aquatic ecosystems,’’ an EPA remediation order said.

Despite the reluctance to clean up these Lake Macquarie waters, contaminated waterways in other areas have been remediated.

Macquarie University Professor Mark Patrick Taylor pointed out that contaminants had been removed from the Hunter River.

The Newcastle Herald has previously reported that BHP Billiton was spending $780million to remove steelmaking contaminants from the Hunter River.

At Bunker Hill in Idaho, the US Environmental Protection Agency removed more than 1.5million cubic metres of contaminated material from the Coeur d’Alene river system, which suffered from 125 years of pollution from a lead and zinc smelter.

But NSW EPA director of contaminated land and environmental health Craig Lamberton said digging up the contamination in Cockle Creek and Cockle Bay would ‘‘just mobilise it more’’.

Another impediment to remediating the waterways was Pasminco going into administration, meaning authorities could not hold the corporate polluter accountable for the mess.

Mr Lamberton said there was no longer any lead runoff from Pasminco, so ‘‘over time sediments are accreting on top of the contaminated sediments and effectively capping that lead in place’’. 

‘‘In the past, before there were any pollution controls, all the wastewater for the Pasminco site went down Cockle Creek,’’ Mr Lamberton said.

‘‘The headwaters of the creek and bay have a profile of lead as a result of 100 years of pollution.’’ 

He said the EPA did have a ‘‘regulatory instrument’’ that covers the creek and bay.

This meant sediments could not be disturbed ‘‘without our specific approval’’.

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