Esperance Port Authority workers and residents angry at the heavy metal contamination scandal affecting the town and Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) workers have banned handling lead through the port. More than 700 residents packed the Esperance Civic Centre on March 26 to hear reports of a pattern of bureaucratic buck-passing on the lead and nickel pollution.
Department of Environment and Conservation spokesperson Robert Atkins said the port authority was responsible for alerting the DEC of any alarming dust levels. But he revealed that DEC officers hadn't even realised the port was shipping carbonate lead powder, rather then the pelleted version as stipulated on its licence.
Atkins said lead and nickel levels away from the port are equal to, or below, acceptable levels. But, he said, marine sediment samples taken from areas adjacent to the port-loading wharf returned lead levels "much higher than the guideline that's been set, obviously indicating spillages off the wharf and perhaps wash downs from the wharf".
When questioned as to why the DEC did not act until after the deaths of thousands of birds, Atkins said they could not watch the port at all times and that they trusted the port to adhere to its reporting obligations.
Four days later, the Esperance Express revealed that a report submitted by the Esperance Port Authority last October 31 failed to include lead monitoring results for February 2006, and was deemed deficient. The port was forced to resubmit the report with all the necessary data, which it did on January 31. That report revealed an alarming lead level.
Macquarie University geochemist and toxicologist Professor Brian Gulson said that the carbonate form of lead transported through the town is "the most toxic form of lead you can have". He said lead amounts in local dust are "1000 times higher than we measure in Sydney houses".
Shire chief executive officer Mike Archer presented a map that showed where lead and nickel were found in the 287 rainwater samples, with a clear pattern close to the port. Lead above acceptable levels was found in water 53 tanks, and high nickel readings were seen in 109 tanks.
The department of health's environment director Jim Dodds said the Esperance Hospital blood clinic was sampling more than 110 people a day at a rate of three every 10 minutes. He reported that results show 218 people have five micrograms of lead per decilitre or less; 16 have between six and nine; two have 10 or over (10 micrograms per decilitre is the maximum of World Health Organisation guidelines).
Port authority chief executive officer Colin Stewart read from a prepared statement and did not take questions. The meeting narrowly passed a motion calling for the port's lead export licence to be permanently revoked.
The next day, the 46 MUA members employed by the Esperance Port Authority voted to ban loading lead until a safe method is agreed upon between the union, government departments and the port authority. Magellan Mines has been delivering lead to the wharves in open-topped, tarpaulin-covered rail wagons. No authority has revealed if samples have been taken along the rail corridor, an obvious target for investigation.
Port workers report that the shed in which the lead has been housed is dilapidated. The workers also say the conveyor belt, which carries the lead from the shed to waiting ships, is not enclosed underneath, allowing lead dust to fall from the belt. They also said that when lead carbonate is loaded from the spout into the hold of the waiting ships, significant amounts of dust can be seen rising into the atmosphere.
The Department of Fisheries has advised the public not to consume fish, crustaceans or shellfish caught close to the Esperance Port. Marine sediment samples collected form a seabed directly under the port's discharge pipe show very high lead and nickel levels. The samples contained lead readings of between 3600mg/kg and 29,000mg/kg. Under Australian environmental guidelines lead levels are set between 50 mg/kg and 220 mg/kg. Elevated nickel levels of between 2200 mg/kg and 6600 mg/kg were also detected in the samples, well above guidelines of 21 mg/kg and 52 mg/kg.