LONG-SUFFERING Lake Macquarie residents are being treated worse than cattle when it comes to dealing with more than a century of pollution from the Pasminco lead smelter.
As one government agency spends $60million to protect Hunter farm animals and food from toxic lead, north Lake Macquarie children still play in contaminated dirt.
Hunter Water has erected kilometres of fencing along the Chichester to Newcastle pipeline to restrict cattle and horse access because of lead poisoning fears.
More than $60million will be spent removing sections of the 70-kilometre lead-jointed pipe, 1200 cows have been blood tested and affected soil is being capped with a 15-centimetre layer of turf.
In comparison, most residents living in the fallout zone from the former Pasminco lead and zinc smelter were given a DVD on how to limit lead exposure.
Boolaroo Action Group spokesman Jim Sullivan said the ‘‘vast difference’’ between the treatment of people and livestock was ‘‘astonishing’’.
He said it was estimated less than $2 million had been spent on the controversial Lead Abatement Strategy designed to protect north Lake Macquarie residents.
‘‘It appears Hunter Water has developed an ethical and best-practice approach to dealing with the problem to protect animals, which is great to see,’’ he said.
‘‘Unfortunately in Lake Macquarie there have been decades of delays and failures by authorities tasked with protecting people from Pasminco’s pollution.’’
In 2010, a calf died of lead poisoning and laboratory testing revealed lead in soil levels as high as 35,000 parts per million (ppm) along sections of the pipeline.
Of 1200 cattle blood tested, 24 had elevated blood lead levels and were quarantined.
Lead experts warn exposure to contaminated soil and dust can cause sickness and brain damage in children.
The highest level of lead found in soil as part of continuing Newcastle Herald and Macquarie University investigation into Pasminco pollution was 17,500ppm at Tredinnick Oval, Speers Point.
Soil in the backyard of a home at Boolaroo was found to have 4230ppm lead, compared with the Australian safety guideline for residential areas of 300ppm.
‘‘In NSW, no strict guidelines exist for lead in rural settings, however, Hunter Water has taken an overall conservative approach and applied the residential criteria of 300 parts per million,’’ Hunter Water’s website states.
‘‘The results of soil sampling have shown that generally the concentration of lead in the soil is above the normal criteria for residential land use. The sampling indicates that the levels drop to below the criteria at generally two metres from the pipeline.’’
A Hunter Water spokesman said there was no threat to water quality and fencing had been placed along sections of the pipeline where lead joints were used almost 80 years ago.
He said over the past five years, $25.7million had been spent replacing the pipe from Tarro to Shortland and Beresfield to Stony Pitch.
‘‘The soil within this 12-kilometre corridor has been capped off with clean soil [turf 15 centimetres thick] to prevent animals or people from coming into contact with it,’’ he said. A further $38.3million will be spent replacing the pipe between Tarro and Beresfield and Beresfield and Duckenfield.
Pasminco administrator Ferrier Hodgson has been forced to remediate soil at the former Cockle Creek smelter site to less than 300ppm lead.
But there has been no requirement by the Environment Protection Authority for the company to do the same in surrounding suburbs. In response to the Toxic Truth series, the NSW government has established a lead expert working group and community lead reference group to review Pasminco’s pollution legacy and the state-sanctioned clean-up.
An EPA spokeswoman said the regulator would work with the groups to address any problems identified.
NSW Health has announced it will begin free blood testing for children in the area.
“Work to identify a suitable alternative for the disposal of lead-affected soil and slag [smelting waste product] now that the Pasminco waste cell has been closed is progressing and the EPA is continuing to work with landfill operators in the area to reach a solution as quickly as possible,’’ she said.