Toxic Truth: Black slag spread in parks despite ‘possible health risks’

 Pasminco Smelter, November 1986.
Pasminco Smelter, November 1986.

A DECADE after Pasminco’s lead and zinc smelter closed at Boolaroo and as the land is being prepared for redevelopment, the Newcastle Herald and Macquarie University collected more than 130 soil and  dust samples from homes and public spaces in surrounding suburbs. The analysis revealed alarming levels of contamination remained, despite a government-approved Lead Abatement Scheme.

FEARS about the health impacts of black slag were raised two years before Lake Macquarie City Council stopped using it in roads and parks.

A report from the Newcastle Herald archives reveals council was concerned about slag posing “possible health risks” as far back as May, 1992.

It did not stop using it until August, 1994, citing concerns that heavy metals could leach into surrounding soil.

Despite assurances at the time from Pasminco management that the slag was not dangerous, council engaged private consultants to test samples in 1992.

Lake Macquarie State MP Greg Piper, speaking as a councillor at the time, expressed concern about possible high-lead levels in slag.

“I don’t want to panic people but I think if they have slag in their backyard I think that it is best for them to be aware that there might be a problem with it,” Mr Piper said in 1992.

“And certainly not to have their children playing with it, and perhaps consider having it top-dressed, especially if we find out there are contaminated levels associated with it.”

At the time the council said it was working with the Environment Protection Authority and Department of Health investigating the matter.

The Cockle Creek smelter was producing about 80,000 tonnes of slag each year, with the majority of it mixed with dried sewage sludge and coke fines to produce an artificial soil.

It was then used in landscaping mounds around the factory.

Reacting to council’s 1994 decision to stop using the black slag in its projects, Pasminco’s then environmental services manager Sharon Howes said the council had used the slag for more than 20 years as fill at Speers Point Park and in other land reclamation projects.

Ms Howes described the move as an "overreaction".

Boolaroo Action Group spokesman and retired environmental-health council officer Jim Sullivan said council knew it was a problem for years before it stopped delivering it to homes.

‘‘It was horrendous really, what was happening with the slag,’’ Mr Sullivan said.

‘‘People were filling up box trailers for their backyards.’’

The council has previously insisted it was ‘‘unaware of any research or data on the human or environmental health impacts of Pasminco slag’’ until 2003.

The EPA issued a remediation order for the Pasminco site in 2003, saying it was ‘‘contaminated in particular with lead, cadmium and zinc in such a way as to present a significant risk of harm’’.

Lake Macquarie mayor Jodie Harrison said council funded research into the health impacts of black slag in 2001. It found lead in the slag could affect human health if it was ingested or dust inhaled.

"In most cases, slag deposits in Lake Macquarie City present a low health risk if the slag is covered," she said. "Black slag is generally managed on-site, either by reburying the material or adding topsoil to a minimum depth of 200mm and establishing grass cover."

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