THE fear started to creep in when talk began in 1990 about sick children.
Cockle Creek’s lead and zinc smelter had been heralded as the economic backbone of the town for decades and thousands of locals embraced the heavy industry.
Ask any one of hundreds of its former employees and they will say the Pasminco smelter, previously known as the Sulphide, was good to them.
But in 1991, fear turned to panic when it was revealed local children had dangerous lead levels in their blood.
Workers worried for their jobs, parents feared for their children and serious fractures appeared in the once-united community.
Argenton resident Jane Jones said that for a long time many locals were reluctant to vent anger towards the smelter publicly, but with the health of children at risk things changed.
It marked the start of an official split in the town and a cloud of uncertainty settled over the plant.
Public meetings, which filled the town hall with hundreds of people attending, at times descended into slanging matches.
Former resident Marianne Kidd grew up in Boolaroo and moved back in 1980.
The first thing she noticed was how difficult it was to see out the windows of her Third Street house. She soon realised the glass had been etched from years of exposure to acid from the smelter.
‘‘There was acid in the air. You would go outside and get that taste in the back of your throat,’’ she said.
The mother of two clearly remembers the day No Lead group members Lyn Hinds and Theresa Gordon came to visit. They wanted to know if her children attended the local school because blood lead testing was under way.
‘‘I thought to myself. My God, these guys [at the smelter] are self-monitoring and they are using the kids as their monitors. I thought this is wrong,’’ she said.
From that moment Ms Kidd dedicated herself to fighting the smelter and its health impacts. But as those who lived through the era attest, the industry was more than willing to fight back.
A key element of the smelter’s public relations strategy was a community psychologist who discouraged talk about pollution problems.
‘‘She was saying that these people [No Lead] are going to lower the value of your properties by drawing attention to the fact you live next to a smelter,’’ Ms Kidd said.
‘‘All we were trying to do was get the plant to lower its emissions.’’
In the end, Ms Kidd reluctantly accepted an offer from Pasminco to buy her house in 1993.
She mistakenly thought she would leave the town quietly.
Records show the company bought the four bedroom weatherboard house for $115,000, however, it advised Lake Macquarie it paid $153,000.
‘‘Their intention was to turn people who were stuck in Boolaroo against me,’’ Ms Kidd said. ‘‘It was a terrible time. There were death threats; my sister had her car vandalised.’’
Ms Kidd’s former house has since been demolished.
Former No Lead group leader Theresa Gordon said when the health issue first arose many in the community were extremely concerned, and co-operated with the Hunter Public Health Unit.
But, Ms Gordon said in the years to come the town was turned into a ‘‘bitter, divided and untrusting’’ one.
She said Pasminco did a “really slick public relations job on everyone”.
“They really did con the government and the EPA,” she said. “They just put band aids over old clapped-out technology to get away with it for as long as they could.”
Ms Gordon said the company used newsletters, networking and political barriers as a powerful manipulating source.
She said Pasminco worked wonders at disempowering those that sought change.
Strategies included hiring US public relations specialist Peter Sandman who specialises in “managing risk controversies”.
“They learnt from him all these strategies on how to isolate the vocal people and present them as mad radicals,” she said.
“We could see they used the strategies very cleverly on us in an effort to discredit our concerns.
“But at the end of the day there was 40tonnes of lead coming out of the smelter each year and it wasn’t going nowhere.”
In August, 1992, a community report produced by Pasminco promoted the theory there were no adverse affects from lead exposure, because five studies had failed to find consistent results. This was in total opposition to what the public health unit was trying to convince locals of – that there was real cause for concern.
Former Argenton resident Vic Murray said that, so successful was material produced by the industry, many residents refused to take precautionary actions advised by government departments.
When it was announced that Boolaroo school children would relocate while the school was being decontaminated due to severe lead levels, many parents refused to allow the children to be removed from the school.
They believed the lead issue was a plot devised by the public health unit and Department of Education to close the school.
Dr Rosemary Aldrich helped co-ordinate a program of regular blood testing for Boolaroo children from 1992 and said she could ‘‘absolutely sympathise’’ with families who felt ‘‘trapped’’ in the shadow of the smelter.
She said a Lake Macquarie City Council decision to include a notion of ‘‘contaminated land’’ on properties that were within the Hunter Area Health Service’s sampling program created a ‘‘volatile’’ environment.
‘‘Suddenly house prices went down and trapped people because they couldn’t sell their homes,’’ she said.
‘‘The community was angry, saying ‘How dare you come in and do this stuff [test blood lead, soil and dust levels] to us and then give us no avenues to change it?’’’ she said.
‘‘We had thought about remediation but hadn’t found anything that worked yet.
‘‘They felt condemned to a future of living in this environment forever because they said their houses had halved in value, so how could they possibly sell out and leave?
‘‘There was stigma attached to it and it was terrible for them.’’
The council later agreed to lift the Lead In Soil notification if the home owner could show the average soil lead levels were below 300parts per million.
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