FRED McEnearney’s first impressions of Boolaroo are seared into his memory – and his nostrils.
The then 16-year-old and his nine siblings were used to moving frequently for his father’s work as a headmaster, but their newest home was unlike anything else.
‘‘The first thing we saw was there were no trees on the hill, the hills were bare and it looked like an isolated town,’’ he said.
‘‘It had a terrible smell about it and it didn’t look like a happy town.’’
But a lot can change in half a century, with stomach cancer survivor Mr McEnearney, 81, and his wife Denise still living by choice in their beloved suburb.
‘‘Boolaroo is now viewed a lot better than it was because people now want to come and live here,’’ he said. ‘‘Just the other day they advertised the house next door to rent and 20 people turned up, some of them carrying babies and children.
‘‘No one is frightened of living in Boolaroo anymore like they used to be. People were moving out – now they’re moving back.’’
When the McEnearney family arrived in 1949 they occupied the corner of Third and Lakeview Street, with young Fred’s father and 16 assistants responsible for 640 students at Boolaroo School.
After his leaving certificate, Mr McEnearney did a carpentry apprenticeship and started working for contractors at the nearby Sulphide lead smelter, cement works and sulphuric acid and super phosphate plant.
When he married, Mr McEnearney and his young wife bought their own house in the next street – a block closer to the smelter.
‘‘There must have been a lot of pollution getting pumped out with all those [industries] next to each other,’’ he said. ‘‘I remember a meeting down the hall where they started putting pressure on for the same as they have in Broken Hill where everyone in the town got paid for living so close to industry.
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‘‘When the [lead] readings started coming in fairly high especially with the children they knew that something had to be done.’’
Mr McEnearney said the first signs of a divide within the Boolaroo community came when Pasminco announced in 1992 it would develop a buffer zone bounded by First Street, Third Street and Main Road.
It offered to buy properties within the buffer zone and planned to demolish the houses. The plan later changed to remediating the properties and leasing the houses to tenants who were not pregnant, did not have children under 12 years old and didn’t own pets.
Mr McEnearney had just retired as senior works supervisor at the University of Newcastle and was finally finding time to enjoy his pool, gardens and aviaries.
He didn’t want to start again and the couple was one of the few in the buffer zone who decided to stay.
‘‘The division came about when Pasminco started doing lots of things to helps lots of people and others just outside the buffer zone didn’t get any relief,’’ he said.
‘‘All we heard was children over 10 would have problems with intelligence so you could understand why they were upset. There were strong arguments and meetings where people were upset and saying Pasminco weren’t doing enough.’’
While not a parent himself, Mr McEnearney only had to look at his treasured animals to know why others were concerned.
A greyhound trainer who had success with a litter bred in Singleton, he decided to rear his third litter in Boolaroo. A vet diagnosed the pups as having brain damage consistent with lead poisoning.
Mr McEnearney also kept birds – breeding canaries, budgerigars and cockatiels and feeding the chicks with a mixture of biscuits and eggs from his chickens. When he found the offspring were sterile he had the chickens and eggs tested. The chickens had blood lead levels of up to 435.
‘‘I just thought, well that’s bad luck, I’ve got to try and get over it – which I did.’’
He believes, to Pasminco’s credit, it did ‘‘everything it could to help’’, including digging out his aviaries and laying new sand.
The company removed and replaced his ceiling insulation, vacuumed inside his ceiling and sprayed it with PVA glue to keep dust particles in situ. The last load of topsoil to be applied to his front and back yards was as part of the Lead Abatement Strategy in 2012.
When Mr McEnearney said he didn’t want people at a park planned for next door to look into his property, Pasminco built him a six-foot-high fence.
When he heard the company was paying the water rates for his neighbouring tenant to hose the lawn and house, he asked it to pay the bills for everyone in the buffer zone.
‘‘They agreed – and they agreed to pay the whole water bill, not just the water usage.’’
Mr McEnearney said any lingering hurt in the suburb was compounded when TV stations picked up on the story of Boolaroo’s often strained relationship with Pasminco and, he says, misrepresented problems.
‘‘I took umbrage at what the channels were doing, they twisted the stories to serve themselves,’’ he said. ‘‘Boolaroo was made to look a lot worse than it actually was – it was very bad but they didn’t have to distort things.’’
Any visitor to the suburb now would see signs of its transformation, he said.
‘‘You’ve only got to look around and see the trees, everything looks a lot healthier visually around the town,’’ he said.
‘‘There were no children at all in this street, now we have four or five children every day walking down the street to go to school.
‘‘I talk to a lot of people and you don’t hear them going crook anymore, all they’re doing is saying ‘When are they going to finish the roundabout?’
‘‘It’s a pretty happy town and everyone seems to get on well.’’
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