Toxic Truth: Lead levels put land on hold

Christine Curry’s ‘‘sterile’’ property cannot be developed. Picture: Brock Perks
Christine Curry’s ‘‘sterile’’ property cannot be developed. Picture: Brock Perks

CHRISTINE Curry can dig a hole to plant a tree in her Speers Point yard, but she can’t dig a hole to erect privacy screens.

Mrs Curry is one of hundreds of north Lake Macquarie residents stranded with ‘‘sterile’’ properties that can’t be developed or improved because of toxic pollution from the former Pasminco lead and zinc smelter.

Initially, the widow went to council in 2012 asking about building a granny flat for her son and granddaughter at the back of her large block of land.

A short time later, she asked about extending her back deck.

Then again, about erecting privacy screens against a side fence.

All requests were turned down  because parts of Mrs Curry’s land, like hundreds of others in the area, have lead levels above the Australian standard of 300 parts per million.

‘‘I don’t see why I should be made to pay for this when I participated in the Lead Abatement Strategy that was designed to address the pollution and it was Pasminco that created the problem in the first place,’’ Mrs Curry said.

‘‘The whole situation is ludicrous and the residents are the ones who have been left to pay.’’

For a development application to be considered, the council told Mrs Curry she needed to remediate sections of her land identified as contaminated.

In a costly exercise, she paid for parts of her yard to be excavated and had certified ‘‘virgin’’ soil trucked in.

The council then told Mrs Curry she needed more testing to prove the contamination had been removed.

‘‘I was trying to do everything by the book, but it all got too hard and too expensive,’’ she said.

‘‘It honestly wouldn’t surprise me if people just ignore the law and do things illegally.’’

Mrs Curry gave up on building the granny flat, and her son and granddaughter now live with her.

When her elderly aunt moved in recently, Mrs Curry took to sleeping in the lounge room.

‘‘We did a major renovation and extension that was approved by council in 2003 when Pasminco was still operating and there was no mention of any problem with the soil,’’ she said.

‘‘Now I can dig a hole for a tree, but not for anything else. 

‘‘I would like to be able to tell the people from Ferrier Hodgson [Pasminco administrator] that they can’t do anything with their land and see how they like it.’’

Boolaroo Action Group spokesman Jim Sullivan said every step of Mrs Curry’s experience highlighted the problems faced by residents in Speers Point, Argenton and Boolaroo.

‘‘It is really confusing and difficult for residents to know where they stand,’’ he said.

‘‘At the moment they are being told it’s all right to live with the contamination, but it’s not acceptable for development. It’s all terribly unfair.’’

A spokeswoman for Lake Macquarie City Council said each development was assessed on its merits.

She said  before the closure of Pasminco, residents doing work that did not include new buildings were advised to handle soil with ‘‘due care’’.