PREMIER Mike Baird promised a week ago his government would ‘‘listen and understand in detail’’ the plight of north Lake Macquarie residents living with a century of toxic pollution from the former Pasminco smelter.
This week, the government’s response to the lead contamination issue threatens to sink Mr Baird’s can-do commitment.
In what residents describe as ‘‘another let down’’, Environment Minister Rob Stokes refused on Wednesday to answer four questions about the financial impact of the industrial pollution on residents.
The Herald revealed that the state government had deemed contaminated soil good enough for people’s yards, but no Hunter council tip would accept it as waste.
Additionally, it reported that residents could have to pay up to $80,000 each to clear their land of Pasminco pollution before lodging development applications.
Alan Craig, who has lived in Boolaroo for 47 years, said Pasminco was given government approval to damage people’s properties and no one cared.
‘‘Pasminco has done the damage in our towns. They’ve damaged the reputation of the towns, yet they get away scot-free,’’ he said.
On Thursday morning, the Herald forwarded the same questions to the Premier’s office asking why the people of Lake Macquarie were being forced to pay for Pasminco’s pollution.
Late Thursday afternoon, Mr Stokes replied.
He said a newly developed working group, announced last month in response to the Herald’s Toxic Truth investigation, would investigate and provide options to the government on ‘‘how we can ensure the community continues to be safe and we protect the vulnerable from excessive personal cost’’.
‘‘Our first priority must always be the protection of human health and I am pleased that Hunter New England Health has announced blood-level testing for children under five will commence early next year,’’ he said.
But Boolaroo business owner Stan Kiaos said the community had had enough of successive governments failing the area.
He said residents were ‘‘hurting’’ and badly needed ‘‘leadership’’ on the issue, not more lip service.
‘‘No one is standing on the side of the community and that’s what we want,’’ he said.
‘‘We want the government to say ‘You’ve been treated badly, we’ll rectify the problem and make this town something to be proud of in future’.
‘‘Otherwise, the pollution legacy will be with us forever.’’
As previously reported, a joint Newcastle Herald and Macquarie University investigation revealed heavy metal pollution in soil and household dust at levels that can damage health.
Total Environment Centre executive director Jeff Angel urged the government to decontaminate north Lake Macquarie to the national standard.
‘‘The Sydney Olympic site, which was in pretty bad shape, was decontaminated. What that shows is that when the priority is there, governments can do it,’’ he said.
Like others, Mr Angel said the cost of fully decontaminating the area would become more expensive the longer it was left.
‘‘It’s unfortunate that the suburb was dudded by the original agreement but that doesn’t relieve the present government or the taxpayer of going back in there and cleaning it up properly,’’ he said.
‘‘As we learn more about the toxic impact of lead on health, the residual lead in the soil cannot be regarded as safe.’’
Nature Conservation Council chief executive Kate Smolski said there was no question the community had been short changed.
‘‘The Sydney Olympic site clean-up occurred because the eyes of the world were watching Sydney at the time; everyone is now watching what’s going on in Boolaroo thanks to the Newcastle Herald,’’ she said.
Lake Macquarie MP Greg Piper said residents should not be forced to pay for the clean-up of contaminated soil.
Mr Piper said the Premier had given an undertaking to act on the pollution if it was necessary and ‘‘I intend to hold him to that commitment’’.
Lake Macquarie mayor Jodie Harrison said a long-term approach was needed to support the community.
‘‘Council demonstrably has, and will continue to put the interests of the local community first,’’ she said.
‘‘If we can influence better results, we will be doing everything we can to achieve just that.’’
A spokeswoman for the EPA said it was investigating ‘‘cost effective’’ options for lead soil disposal, post closure of the Pasminco containment cell next year.
‘‘The EPA chief executive Barry Buffier will be meeting with Greg Piper and is planning to meet mayor Jodie Harrison in the next five days to discuss future management of lead issues in the community surrounding the former Pasminco site,’’ she said.
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