Residents dirty on failure of Boolaroo lead soil waste disposal plan

FRUSTRATED: Boolaroo resident Mark Hambier has been waiting months for authorities to find a solution for residents to legally dump tonnes of lead soil in the Hunter. Picture: Marina Neil
FRUSTRATED: Boolaroo resident Mark Hambier has been waiting months for authorities to find a solution for residents to legally dump tonnes of lead soil in the Hunter. Picture: Marina Neil

MORE than two years ago north Lake Macquarie residents were promised a solution for dumping lead contaminated soil created by the former Pasminso lead and zinc smelter.

Today, they are still waiting.

The sorry Boolaroo pollution saga, which stretches back decades, was described by residents at a public meeting on Tuesday night as  “incompetence”.

The meeting was called by the Community Lead Reference Group, chaired by Lake Macquarie MP Greg Piper, that ends its term on December 25. It was designed to update residents on the work underway to manage lead pollution.

More than 50 people heard that $1.8 million, over four years, from a NSW government fund of $23.5 million to manage contaminated sites, would be spent in north Lake Macquarie. 

The funding, described as “not enough”, will be used to boost services provided by Lake Macquarie City Council to help residents with contamination issues.

But the news came on the same day that authorities were forced to admit the long-promised solution for dumping lead soil in the Hunter had failed because it was designed for “backyard gardeners”, not people forced to remediate land to gain approval for development consent.

Boolaroo Action Group spokesman Jim Sullivan said it was “unbelievable the EPA couldn’t get this right”.

“This is the biggest con job on a community by the government and EPA that I’ve ever seen,” he said. “We’ve had so many groups look at this issue over 30 years and all they have done is take all the responsibility and dump it on the community.

“Now we learn they can’t even find a place for people to take contaminated soil from an industry that they allowed to pollute peoples’ land.”

In 2015, the EPA announced that Newcastle City Council was investigating building a containment cell at its landfill site to accept the soil. But this week authorities were forced to admit that the solution, that opened earlier this month, was designed for “backyard gardeners”.

For months Boolaroo resident Mark Hambier has had more than 50 tonnes of lead soil sitting in large uncovered piles in his yard, waiting for a place to legally dump it.

CONCERN: Lake Macquarie MP, Greg Piper, addressing a public meeting at Boolaroo Public School on Tuesday night.

CONCERN: Lake Macquarie MP, Greg Piper, addressing a public meeting at Boolaroo Public School on Tuesday night.

When Newcastle council announced Summerhill was accepting the waste earlier this month, Mr Hambier thought he finally had the solution authorities had been promising for years. But then he found out he had to load the large piles of dirt into 800-kilogram bulka bags or the tip wouldn’t accept the waste.

“I searched around for someone to do it and the extra cost to load it into the bags was ridiculous,” he said. “Most people said unless I had a frame for the bags they couldn’t do it anyway. It seems to me that the solution they’ve found for residents is that they’ll let us dump the soil, but they’ve made it too difficult so we can’t.”

According to the EPA’s own advice, lead-contaminated soil should be disposed of in a “timely manner” once it has been disturbed.

Mr Piper admitted the solution was a failure. 

“The whole point was to make it easy for residents to do the right thing, but it’s ended up too difficult,” he said. “It’s just not a satisfactory result. It might be workable for some people with a really small amount of soil to dispose of, but it’s unduly expensive if you have a large amount like most residents will have.”

Mr Hambier said it left residents in a position where it would be easier to dispose of the waste illegally.

“I have tried to do the right thing and keep hitting roadblocks at every turn,” he said. “It’s beyond frustrating and completely ridiculous.”

A spokesman for Newcastle council said it was asked by the EPA to find a waste disposal solution for “backyard gardeners”.

“The EPA asked us to handle domestic-sized waste only - not the large volumes then suggested for the first time last week,” the spokesman said. “The centre can accept as many bags as is necessary, but not loosely transported industrial-sized loads.” 

Once enough bags are collected the soil was to be disposed of in a separate landfill at Summerhill.

Mark Hambier

Mark Hambier

“The EPA is the authority responsible for determining how large volumes of lead-contaminated soil are to be removed from Lake Macquarie City area,” the Newcastle council spokesman said. “Under current arrangements, it must go to a designated centre in Sydney.”

Hundreds of tonnes of dangerous heavy metals were emitted from the stacks of the Pasminco smelter, one of the region’s chief polluters, over 106 years. Lead can cause health impacts, especially for young children and unborn babies, including learning problems, hearing loss, slowed growth and behavioural problems.

When the smelter closed in 2003, toxic pollution was left across large parts of Boolaroo, Argenton and Speers Point. Hundreds of homes still contain levels of lead in soil significantly higher than national health guidelines of 300 parts per million.

For a development application to be considered, residents in the contamination zone must test and remediate the soil.

A spokeswoman for the EPA said it had an “in principle” agreement with Newcastle council to receive around 100 tonnes of lead soil each year.

She said in August the EPA varied Summerhill’s licence and put conditions in place to ensure accepting the soil did not impact human health or the environment.

“Subsequent procedures imposed by council have constrained the proposal to waste received in bulka bags only,” she said. “The use of bulka bags was a suggestion made by council staff to make it easier for people with small quantities.”

The spokeswoiman said “despite representations”, council indicated accepting truckloads of soil would require “significant planning and preparation”. “The EPA encourages council to undertake that preparation and planning as soon as possible to achieve a regional environmental and community outcome,” she said.