IN August this year, the NSW Environment Protection Authority announced that residents living near the former Boolaroo smelter would be given a way to safely dump their lead-laden soil.
After two years of planning, the authority said residents living in the official “lead abatement strategy area” would be able to dump their dirt at Newcastle City Council’s Summerhill waste treatment facility. Prior to this, the only legal option was to have the waste hauled to Sydney, dramatically lifting the costs for those who for no fault of their own were obliged to remediate their properties before they could undertake any building work.
So when the Summerhill scheme began this month, the affected residents could be forgiven for thinking the powers-that-be had finally come up with a workable solution to their lead-waste woes. But no.
According to Newcastle council, the environment authority only ever asked it to provide a facility to accept waste from “backyard gardeners”. Apparently it was only “last week” that the council was confronted with the idea that people may want to take “large volumes” of waste to Summerhill. As far as the council is concerned, “large volumes of lead-contaminated soil” are the responsibility of the environment authority, and as things stand, the only place that can take such volumes is still Sydney.
From the residents’ perspective, this is a run-around worthy of Catch-22. They have a lead-waste facility, but only for amounts that are too small for practical use. To give an idea of the volumes involved, Boolaroo resident Mark Hambier has 50 tonnes of lead-contaminated soil excavated and sitting in piles at his property. Yet the environment authority says the “in-principle” agreement it has struck with the council only caters for 100 tonnes of waste a year – or just two jobs the size of Mr Hambier’s.
As Lake Macquarie MP Greg Piper admits, the scheme is a failure. And a cruel one at that. Having held out a glimmer of hope, it must seem to the residents that the whole process has been more about box-ticking than finding a workable solution.
Despite warnings from the very start that the residents would be the ones left holding the can, Pasminco was allowed to close down the smelter without ever coming close to making good on the pollution its processes created over the decades. Years later, the implications of Pasminco’s easy exit are still coming home to roost.