HUNDREDS of former Pasminco lead smelter workers as well as residents who were exposed to the plant's toxic fallout may be eligible for financial compensation, a leading industrial compensation lawyer says.
Shine Lawyers partner Roger Singh said a recent high court ruling relating to an asbestos compensation claim in the Northern Territory had major implications for those seeking damages for the effects of environmental pollution, years after their exposure took place.
The high court case focused on whether the injuries suffered by former Rio Tinto alumina refinery worker Zorko Zabic occurred before 1987, when the Workers Rehabilitation and Compensation Act started.
Rio Tinto argued Mr Zabic's claim for damages should be covered by the statutory workers' compensation scheme, rather than common law.
This was because, it argued, Mr Zabic's symptoms emerged after the introduction of the compensation scheme, which prevented claims being made in a court.
In a landmark ruling, the high court rejected the company's appeal and found that Mr Zabic was injured at the time of inhalation and exposure to asbestos while he was cleaning the material from pipes in the 1970s.
Mr Singh said the ruling could have implications for former Pasminco workers and surrounding residents who believed their health was damaged by exposure to industrial pollution.
"The important thing here is the high court ruled that the illness occurred at the time of exposure, rather than diagnosis," he said.
Among those who support the rights of former employees to seek damages is former Pasminco grit blasting and spray painting contractor Barry Kalousek.
The 68-year-old, who worked at the smelter between the early 1960s and late 1990s, suffers from melanoma and bladder cancer. Both illnesses have been directly linked to his exposure to toxic chemicals over many years.
"There was basically no occupational health and safety rules when I started working at the smelter," he said. "They had an in-house system where they moved guys around if they had high blood-lead levels. But they didn't worry about the contractors.
"I was using chemicals every day that have since been banned."
Chad Hinds, who grew up in Boolaroo, said he believed those whose health was damaged from lead pollution were entitled to compensation.
As a nine-year-old, he registered a blood-lead level of 30 micrograms per decilitre of blood (the recommended level is less than five) when he was tested at Boolaroo Public School in 1991.
The learning difficulties and behaviour problems that he experienced as a child have been directly linked to his exposure to lead.
The 33-year-old has struggled to maintain employment since leaving school.
He spends about $290 a month on medication to treat bipolar and depression.
"They wouldn't be allowed to poison people like they did today, so why should they be allowed to walk away from the damage they did years ago," Mr Hinds said.
Mr Singh said compensation could be sought for pain and suffering, the loss of quality of life, economic loss, such as employment capacity and ongoing medical costs.