In Port Pirie, an industrial centre 220 kilometres north of Adelaide in South Australia, more than half of two-year-olds suffer from lead poisoning at a level consistent with later behavioural problems and loss of learning ability. The problem is more than twice as bad as anywhere else in Australia, including such lead-polluted cities as Mt Isa and Broken Hill.
This should be enough for an appalled state Labor government to take urgent action, including forcing the owners of Port Pirie’s huge metals smelter to pay the costs of protecting the town’s youngest residents.
But the scale of lead pollution in Port Pirie is nothing new, and the particular dangers that lead poses to small children have been known at least since the 1920s. Successive state governments have reacted by looking the other way and, when that hasn’t been possible, restricting themselves to hopeful half-measures.
State cabinets have trodden lightly for fear of upsetting the plant’s owners – currently the Belgian-registered multinational Nyrstar, which also owns the Hobart zinc smelter.
The situation will not change in the short term. This is despite an announcement on December 3, with much fanfare, of a deal between Nyrstar and the federal and state governments for a feasibility study into upgrading the Port Pirie plant, using new technology that could reduce emissions.
The plan proposed to turn the smelter into an “advanced polymetallic processing and recovery facility” at a cost of $350 million. A December 3 company press release said the plant would process “internal residues from Nyrstar’s global network of zinc smelters and other complex waste streams.”
In a big concession to Nyrstar, the deal will strip South Australia’s Environment Protection Authority (EPA) of power to unilaterally make changes to the plant’s production licence, including ordering reductions in pollution levels. “The State Government will give Nyrstar environmental and health regulatory certainty,” the Adelaide Advertiser said on December 4, “with new legislation that will prevent the Environment Protection Authority changing key terms of Nyrstar’s licence without ministerial consent.
“Nyrstar Port Pirie general manager Glenn Poynter said any lack of regulatory certainty would have been a deal-breaker and the company would have pulled out of Port Pirie.”
Nyrstar’s hints that it would shut the plant, sacrificing 720 jobs, clearly rattled the federal and state governments.
The financial backing they have now promised the company for its upgrade is extraordinarily generous. The federal government will provide $150 million of private capital-raising and $100 million, to come from forward sales of metals output, will be underwritten by the state government. SA taxpayers will also provide $5 million for decontamination work and $5 million for detailed engineering studies.
But the threats of closure were an obvious bluff. Nyrstar’s Port Pirie operation is acknowledged in company statements to be profitable.
The firm’s 2011 annual report boasted that gold and silver refining, a big earner for the plant, has been growing.
The Port Pirie smelter is increasingly being integrated into Nyrstar’s global smelting business, which the firm’s recent annual reports show is booming.
The plant could not be closed without Nyrstar suffering major disruption and losses to its world balance sheet.
Business Spectator said on December 3 that the “transformation of the smelter is … expected to produce a strongly profitable project.”
Nyrstar was never going to walk away.
Lead concentrates, mainly from Broken Hill, have been smelted at Port Pirie since 1889. By 1925, poisoning of smelter workers was notorious enough to prompt a Royal Commission, which identified the main cause as fine lead dust from smelter operations.
Lead is an insidious pollutant, since there is no known amount that is too small to cause the body harm. Children under the age of six are most vulnerable.
In 1993, Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council set a target of keeping Australians blood lead levels below 10 micrograms per decilitre (μg/dL). But for children, effects on cognitive development have been demonstrated at much lesser levels, as low as 2 μg/dL.
Mark Taylor, Professor of Environmental Science at Macquarie University, told the ABC in April last year that “exposure to lead causes depressed IQ, and lead poisoned children have profound impulse control problems and increased rates of juvenile delinquency.”
Lead poisoning also affects short-term memory, fine motor skills and social engagement. The effects last throughout adulthood. A US study has established strong links between airborne lead levels in six US cities and reported violent assaults decades later.
Systematic testing of blood lead levels in Port Pirie children did not begin until 1982, when a degree of poisoning was found to be almost universal.
About 98% of children tested above 10 μg/dL. A grim discovery was that in the low-income town, the worst poisoning closely matched the worst poverty.
In Pirie West, next to the smelter, children’s blood lead content was commonly above 30 μg/dL. The situation was similar in the Solomontown neighbourhood to the south-east, where dust from the smelter descends after being whipped up by strong, dry summer winds.
In these areas, the small fibro or corrugated-iron dwellings had always had a population of the economically deprived – especially sole parents. Impossible to seal against dust, the houses each contained kilograms of lead.
Lead mitigation programs began in 1984. But in the first decades, strategies rested on the comforting belief that the problem was mainly historical – that most of the lead entering children’s bloodstreams came from past smelting, not from new emissions, which were assumed to be acceptably low. Families with small children were shifted from the worst streets, and housing there was demolished.
In large measure, responsibility for mitigating lead exposure was placed on the young victims’ families. Port Pirie residents were instructed not to drink rainwater, not to let children play on grass, to keep them out of rooms being vacuum-cleaned and to scrub toys that had been left outside.
Backed by tens of millions of dollars in state funding, the half-measures gradually yielded results.
But in the new century, sophisticated studies showed that “historical” lead was accounting for only a fraction of exposure.
Most of the lead entering children’s blood was fresh out of the smelter, transported on the wind as ultra-fine dust. Infants in their first months were ingesting lead dust from their hands, face, clothes and cribs.
By the age of two, a 2011 study found, children in Port Pirie already had a mean blood lead level of 6.1 μg/dL.
In testing during the first quarter of last year, the percentage of all Port Pirie children who recorded figures above the 10 μg/dL guideline actually rose to almost 29%.
Playgrounds near the town centre were particular danger zones. Hand wipes collected from children who had spent 20 minutes in the playground closest to the smelter returned an average figure 45 times the goal specified by WA Health in its Esperance lead clean-up program.
Another shock came in May last year when the United States Center for Disease Control, a recognised world authority, responded to mounting evidence and halved their “standard elevated blood lead level” for children to 5 μg/dL.
This new threshold means that more than half the two-year-olds in Port Pirie suffer lead poisoning.
The South Australian authorities continue to treat Nyrstar with astonishing indulgence. Under a new five-year licence granted to the company last year, Nyrstar is compelled to observe airborne lead limits of 0.5 micrograms per cubic metre at two testing sites.
But these are not the monitoring stations closest to the smelter, where non-enforceable “targets” will remain.
The Australian said on August 9 that SA Health documents conclude that an airborne lead limit of 0.15 micrograms per cubic metre is needed to meet the national standard for blood lead.
The enforceable limit applied to Nyrstar is more than three times higher. The Ellen St monitoring station, adjacent to Port Pirie’s central business district, will retain its “target” of 1.6 micrograms. This is more than ten times SA Health’s preferred goal.
Moreover, the national standard to which that goal pertains is still 10 μg/dL. This is now recognised internationally as at least twice too high.
Whether Nyrstar has even kept to its past licence terms is in some doubt. Documents obtained by the Australian show that the state EPA in 2011 recommended legal action against the metals giant over its emissions. But the state government failed to act.
If the proposed upgrade goes ahead, the plant will become less of a lead smelter, with production streams of other metals expanded. New processes are predicted to reduce airborne lead.
But this does not mean the dangers will vanish. The earliest the upgrade will come into operation is 2016, and at least until the plant’s current licence ends in 2017, airborne lead restrictions are to stay lax. Further, there is the “historical” lead. Other contaminants in house dust in the town includes zinc, antimony, arsenic, cadmium, bismuth and mercury.
Arguably, Port Pirie is one place where small children simply should not live, and their families should be given financial help to move to nearby locations where metals pollution is not detectable.
But don’t expect Nyrstar to offer to pay. And don’t expect government debt-collectors and process-servers to come knocking on the corporation’s door.