Street without children

June 22, 1994

There are streets in a Newcastle suburb where children are forbidden to live because of the health threat from industrial pollution. The company responsible is Pasminco, much in the news in Tasmania for its ocean dumping of industrial wastes — permitted by the federal government in violation of international treaty. IGNATIUS KIM reports on what local residents call "Australia's first child-free zone".

Only a few trees remain on the hills above the lead and zinc smelter in Boolaroo, just south of Newcastle. Sulphur dioxide emissions have been turning them brown since 1897, when the smelter began operating. At the foot of the hills, residents live only 100 metres away from the plant. Across the road is the aptly named Sulphide Hotel.

The smelter, commonly called "the Sulphide" by local residents, is owned by Pasminco, one of Australia's corporate giants. It is a 24-hour integrated chemical and metallurgical plant, with by-products including mercury and sulphuric acid. Besides sulphur dioxide, gases emitted are hydrogen sulphide and hydrogen selenide.

In one of Australia's worst industrial pollution cases, Pasminco has been contaminating Boolaroo with lead dust in people's properties, lead emissions in the air and lead effluent in the local creek since the plant resumed lead smelting in 1961.

Lead exposure impairs intellectual development in children. In May 1990 the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), of which Australia is a member, targeted four substances for international risk reduction. Lead came first on the list.

In 1991 Pasminco applied for an exemption from the Equal Opportunity Act. Lead workers frequently exceed 30 micrograms of lead per 100 millilitres of blood, the level beyond which foetal damage can occur in pregnant women, so lead companies commonly seek exemptions from sex discrimination laws — instead of ensuring a safe environment for all workers.

When the company lobbied local MPs for support, Democrat MLC Elizabeth Kirby not only opposed the exemption but succeeded in pressing the Hunter Area Health Service's Public Health Unit (PHU) to investigate the blood-lead levels of Boolaroo children.

Released in December 1991, the study found 9% of the children over the level of concern, which was then 25 micrograms of lead per 100 millilitres of blood. When the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) revised that level down to 10 mcg/100 ml in June 1993, the percentage rose to an alarming 84%.

Community action

This spurred on Stephen Gorton to rally the Boolaroo community to do something about the Sulphide. A local action group called No LEAD was formed with Gorton at its head. The organisation has been extensively involved in community consultations, lobbying at all levels of government, addressing conferences and community groups in an effort to force Pasminco to end its harmful practices and take responsibility for remediation.

According to Theresa Gordon, No LEAD's vice-president, the community's concern was also a reaction to two accidents that occurred at the smelter around the time of the PHU study.

"These were two big sulphur trioxide spills which forced children off football fields with coughing, bleeding noses, stinging throats and eyes. The Environment Protection Authority [EPA] never prosecuted on that although there were three videotapes of the incident", Gordon told Green Left Weekly.

When sulphur trioxide gas combines with moisture in the air, sulphuric acid clouds are formed.

The PHU study also investigated soils in Boolaroo and found 70% over 300 parts per million, the level of concern. Subsequently, soils in the surrounding suburbs of Argenton and Edgeworth have also been found to be contaminated.

Apart from emissions and dust, soil contamination is also due to the use of slag from the smelter for land fill, top-dressing of sporting fields and yards, and subsoil and surface drainage.

In some Boolaroo homes, even those built after the removal of lead from paint, the contamination of house dust has been found to be several thousand parts per million.

The cost of decontaminating houses has been estimated at about $10 million — a paltry sum for a giant multinational corporation like Pasminco. And yet, according to a NSW government source, the company has stated that while it is prepared to look at remediation, an amount like $10 million is not on.

EPA

Boolaroo is one of the suburbs surrounding Lake Macquarie, a popular recreation area and Australia's largest saltwater lake. In 1991 Pasminco was licensed by the EPA to discharge annually 2.2 tonnes of lead, 2.2 tonnes of zinc, 2.2 tonnes of selenium, 1.8 tonnes of cadmium, 22 kg of arsenic and 2.2 kg of mercury into nearby Cockle Creek, a wetland area at the non-tidal end of Lake Macquarie.

Said Gordon: "Since our group's been fighting on this, [the discharge] has been cut by 89%. If they could drop their discharge by that much in only three years, then they could have done that a long time ago.

"Actually, they were discharging less than their licence allowed, so the EPA wasn't giving them any incentive to try harder. We're still fighting for zero effluent discharge: we believe that in the 1990s no toxins should be emitted into creek and wetland systems. But the EPA's still condoning it."

No LEAD has also been fighting for independent monitoring of emissions. At present monitoring stations owned and operated by Pasminco measure lead in the air every six days. These measurements are then averaged over a 90-day period. The EPA simply audits the results of Pasminco's self-monitoring.

The NHMRC goal for lead in air is 1.5 mcg per cubic metre. But as Theresa Gordon reminds us, "This is just a recommended goal — it's not a standard; it's not prosecutable.

"When we came into this issue, we found that Pasminco actually produced 6 mcg/m3 lead in air. When the newspapers got onto it, of course, it plummeted down to 1.5, which was the first time it had ever reached that goal since 1961.

"That Pasminco didn't need any pollution-control equipment to meet that goal is a complete reflection, in my view, of the inadequacies of the EPA. If the industry's not going to be prosecuted, then they're not going to bother.

"So we're fighting to make the 1.5 goal a legal standard, which is the case in Victoria and Tasmania. We also want monitoring to be daily. The EPA should know that monitoring on a six-day cycle with a 90-day average is not good enough.

"The EPA is running a mile from this issue; they have a lot to answer for."

Expansion

Government as a whole in Newcastle, a city notorious for industrial pollution, readily submits to the whims of its corporate heavies. In 1992 the Boolaroo smelter won approval from Lake Macquarie City Council for stage one of a $42 million furnace upgrade. By 1997 this is projected to raise output by 20%. Yet the smelter's general manager, Alan Roberts, has admitted that staff numbers will not increase with the upgrade.

Approval was gained without an environmental impact statement (EIS) from Pasminco. In fact, the multinational used remediation and the EIS for leverage: it refused to create a buffer zone and conduct an EIS for stage two of the upgrade if stage one was not passed.

Sharon Howes, the smelter's "environmental services manager", told the Newcastle Herald in May 1992: "At this stage no-one can force Pasminco to conduct an [EIS] and no-one can force us to buy any houses [for the buffer zone]".

Of the $42 million to be spent on the expansion, $24 million has been budgeted for pollution controls. But this is not aimed directly at tackling lead contamination or clean-up. The bulk of the funds will go towards covering up the most obvious pollutant — acrid sulphur dioxide emissions. In 1991 some parts of Boolaroo were periodically subjected to 100 parts per 100 million of sulphur dioxide. The Australian standard is half that amount.

On winning development consent, Pasminco created the buffer zone by purchasing 51 houses. Initial proposals to green this zone have given way to the profit urge: the houses are currently rented out under lease agreements prohibiting children and pets.

"So Australia has its first child-free zone", said Theresa Gordon. "The EPA is totally condoning this. There's this magic line with the buffer zone on one side where children can't live while across the road is the main school.

"A member of our group who was fighting to be included in the buffer zone had three children who had blood-lead levels over 29. She wasn't included — the company told her that it's not as bad where she is even though her house was closer to the main smelter building than some of the houses in the buffer zone."

The EIS for stage two of the upgrade is presently being assessed by the NSW Department of Planning. No LEAD was not permitted to see it. The group was also denied access to Pasminco's feasibility study. While the study was distributed to local MPs, Lake Macquarie City Council and the EPA, No LEAD could not view it even after appealing to the NSW Land and Environment Court under the Freedom of Information Act.

Fast-tracking

The EIS bypassed the Lake Macquarie City Council because of State Environmental Planning Policy No 34 (SEPP 34), introduced in March 1993. SEPP 34 fast-tracks through the Department of Planning any development proposal projected to create 100 jobs or cost $20 million.

Essentially, the policy removes major planning decisions — those most likely to meet public objection — from local councils, away from the pressure of community action groups like No LEAD. This means opposition can be stage-managed via commissions of inquiry appointed by, and answerable to, the minister for planning. No commission has ever recommended against a development proposal.

Pasminco understands well the corporate-friendly nature of commissions of inquiry. According to the NSW government source, the company indicated its wishes to have stage two of the proposed upgrade examined by a commission of inquiry, with the minister for planning determining the application.

This indication was made in 1992, before SEPP 34 was implemented. The draft EIS, originally promised in 1992, was submitted only this year. It is possible that Pasminco may have delayed the submission until it was sure of consideration under SEPP 34. At the moment, a commission of inquiry seems likely.

During the long delay, Pasminco used the time to counter No LEAD's work in raising community awareness. Soon after it was put in the spotlight, the smelter hired a public relations expert experienced in dislodging environmental thorns from corporate sides. Prior to her position as Pasminco's "environmental services manager", Sharon Howes was propagandist for the Tomago aluminium smelter, another prolific local polluter, built adjacent to Newcastle's main ground water supply.

Howes' key tool has been a newsletter called Community Report. In the August 1992 issue, Pasminco asserts: "The [blood-lead] level of 10mcg/100ml is not the US 'level of concern' as quoted by some community representatives. The range of 10-14mcg/100ml has been set by the CDC [US Centre for Disease Control] to trigger actions to remediate environmental sources of lead when a large population of children have blood lead levels in this range.

"10mcg/100ml is not a level for action for an individual child."

In fact, over 80% of Boolaroo children have registered levels over 10 mcg/100 ml. Moreover, the NHMRC lowered Australia's level of concern to that figure after an extensive review of local and international research.

That same issue of Community Report contains a chemical breakdown of Pasminco's slag which was found by Boolaroo residents to add up to only 84.2%. In response, the company provided a total analysis in the November newsletter. Compared to the previous breakdown, it showed higher levels for all substances except alumina, as well as new entries for arsenic, magnesium, copper and calcium.

Most ludicrous, however, is a poem on the front page of the August report, signed "Anonymous". It is called "I'm Proud to Live in Boolaroo". Here are a few verses:

No use leaving, where better to go?

Kids thrive here, watch them grow!

Love their school, learning well,

Progress good; some do excel.

About the lead, been long time here,

Most don't whinge, let others sneer,

The smelter works, means lots of jobs,

Workers united, no place for snobs.

Ask old-timers, still going strong,

Shake their heads, at the lead-soil song,

Pollution's everywhere; no town's free,

Blue-green algae, sewerage at sea.

Blame the victims

The government has offered no solution other than to put the responsibility squarely on the community's shoulders.

"The government and regulatory bodies made the people feel as if they were under siege. They did nothing to help them; they only did things to hinder them", said Theresa Gordon.

"The Education Department put out what's called a lead curriculum module which instructs teachers how to teach the children to handle the lead issue. The catch-cry was, 'Wash, Wipe, Scrape — You'll be Right, Mate!'.

"This was followed by statements like, 'Students should understand that they are ultimately responsible for their own health', 'Children supported and confident in the family unit are better able to cope with the lead issue' and 'There are definite benefits to the area to be gained from industry, eg, employment and business etc. The negative side effects must be viewed in relation to these more positive aspects.'

"The health department has also jumped in, telling the parents that it's their responsibility to clean up to live with lead. This victim-blaming particularly impacts on women: it's the mother who's left with the guilt when the child's blood-lead level doesn't go down. It's the mother that hasn't been washing the child's hands or toys enough."

Along with this propaganda, Pasminco used more substantial means to defuse community opposition.

"Industries are able to use their considerable resources to hold a town to ransom when they start funding so many sporting activities", said Gordon.

"The people overlook the monitoring situation, the accidents and the days when the lead in air readings are 29 when it should be 1.5, for the fact that they've got a new ride-on lawn-mower for the school and a house for the local archery club.

"All these things can change allegiances quite quickly."

When the buffer zone houses were being purchased, most valuations averaged between $100,000 and $110,000. But one of Pasminco's most outspoken critics was offered $140,000 for her house, despite an earlier valuation of $115,000 by a local real estate agent.

Lyn Hinds told the Newcastle Herald in July 1992 that it was "probably money to get rid of me".

These tactics were made more effective by the government's victim-blaming crusade and Boolaroo's isolation, both physically and politically, from wider struggles. Put on the defensive, the community must have felt relief at even the most superficial sign of good will from Pasminco.

Fear

Such a state of affairs can bitterly distort community solidarity.

"When you're told at a parents and citizens meeting to stand up if you're worried about lead, no mother is going to stand up after seeing the ostracising and the terrible things that have happened to the mothers of our group", said Gordon.

"Their children were abused, they were abused, they don't get spoken to. We had calls from mothers after that P&C meeting telling us they were very worried about the lead and their children but were too scared to stand up."

Gordon explains: "I understand people's fears — they've got a lot to lose. They've got the threat of the loss on the value of their homes, which are major assets to working-class families.

"To try to deny the situation is the most comforting way out for a lot of the people. I don't blame them when the power of the government and industry is against them."

The Pasminco case exemplifies corporate power backed by government apologists who claim impartiality. It really reaffirms our only source of strength as working people and activists: a united grassroots movement independent of big business and government.

If community consultations are not grounded in a strongly mobilised movement, government and industry can use them to lock up community energy in bureaucratic processes that bear little fruit.

"We were involved all along [in community consultations], but in every major decision that affected the lives of the community, we were never involved", said Gordon.

"All of a sudden, on the 6 o'clock news, this or that'd be announced and we'd have no idea — including school closures, buffer zones and the addition of 149 certificate warnings on people's properties meaning they couldn't sell or rent them."

No LEAD is firm in its demands: "Our aim within any community consultation has been emission reduction — you have to turn the tap off before you can clean up."

Ultimately, communities need to assert decisive control over social and environmental decisions.

"It's not up to industry to dictate to people", continued Gordon. "The community that has to coexist with a hazardous industry, and the workers who have to work within it, should have input into any major decisions and the right to know the impact of that industry on the community and the environment.

"That is a basic right that needs to be enforced by law."I

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