TAXPAYERS face being stuck with a massive remediation bill for pollution spread across north Lake Macquarie from the site of the former Pasminco lead and zinc smelter at Cockle Creek.
A Newcastle Herald investigation has found dangerous heavy metals across more than 10 square kilometres, home to more than 5500 people.
More than 130 soil and vacuum cleaner dust samples were taken from homes and public spaces uncovering a dangerous mix of lead, cadmium, arsenic and antimony.
The damning findings revealed more than half of the public spaces and all but one of the 19 homes were contaminated with high lead levels that pose serious health risks.
With remediation at the former smelter site due for completion early next year, there are fears Pasminco administrator Ferrier Hodgson will walk away from the region leaving behind a multimillion-dollar clean-up bill.
With serious doubts cast over the effectiveness of a lead abatement program completed two years ago, residents want the government to intervene.
Macquarie University environmental scientist Mark Patrick Taylor said the abatement strategy was a ‘‘classic example of industry needs [economic factors] coming above those of community needs [environmental health]’’.
Lead contamination at Sydney residential properties pales in comparison to levels found at Lake Macquarie after the abatement strategy.
Completed in 2013, it was designed to reduce ‘‘human exposure to lead contamination in surface soil’’.
A 2009 study of heavy metal contamination in 216 homes across a 500 square kilometre area of Sydney recorded an average lead level of 104 parts per million (ppm). The highest reading was 1800 ppm.
By comparison, the average reading from 41 soil samples taken from 19 homes at Boolaroo was 1133 ppm, or 10 times higher than the Sydney results, with a maximum reading of 4230 ppm.
University of Sydney geoscientist Gavin Birch said not enough contaminated soil was removed from north Lake Macquarie.
‘‘If you remove enough soil and replace it with enough clean soil you shouldn’t have a problem,’’ Associate Professor Birch said.
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‘‘Either they didn’t remove enough contaminated soil or they didn’t replace it with enough clean soil.’’
In a 2013 report to Pasminco’s 40 creditors, Ferrier Hodgson said it was “pleased” to report 80 per cent of the 1200 properties tested under the abatement strategy returned “low lead results thus requiring little or no abatement works”.
“We see this as a very positive result as the low lead results should improve the final perception of the local area and potentially increase the value of the [Pasminco Cockle Creek Smelter] developable land.”
The report goes on to say that the administrator only expected 600 homes to participate in the voluntary scheme.
“The reason for the increased participation was the conduct of extensive media and public awareness campaigns by local council and community groups,” it said.
“The campaign was obviously something out of our control.”
Ferrier Hodgson said the larger than expected number of participants resulted in increased administration fees, but due to the lower than expected number of properties requiring abatement, the company “achieved cost savings against budget”.
The company has repeatedly refused to reveal how much was spent on the strategy and did not respond to questions about the amount of contaminated soil removed.
Residents claim a “conspiracy of silence” from the government and Ferrier Hodgson about the program has been in place since the smelter closed in 2003.
Boolaroo Action Group member Stan Kiaos said vital decisions had been made behind closed doors despite vocal opposition from residents.
“It’s clearly not fair and was never designed to be,” he said. “The community is being dudded again.”
EPA director of hazardous incidents and environmental health, Craig Lamberton, said the regulator took ‘‘considerable satisfaction’’ in the changes at north Lake Macquarie since Pasminco walked away from its legacy.
Macquarie University environmental scientist Damian Gore said he would be “very concerned” about the health of children living in the area.
Associate Professor Gore said it was obvious more work needed to be done.
“I think it’s shameful that the people who created the problem are no longer available to make good the problems they created,” he said.
“They’ve made their money, they’ve disappeared and to me that is just morally wrong and I don’t think Australia should stand for it.”
Charlton MP Pat Conroy said he was committed to changing federal laws to ensure polluting industries were forced to clean-up their own mess.
‘‘Governments are now acutely aware of the liability issues around lead smelters and this was not the case in the past,’’ he said.
‘‘I’m completely on board. If it’s federal legislation that is allowing companies to get off the hook for the damage they have done to people and the environment then we need to change the law.’’
Lake Macquarie MP Greg Piper, who campaigned as a councillor to close the smelter, said he was not surprised by the latest findings.
“There is material that we would prefer not to be there,” he said. “It’s the sins of the fathers, if you like. You can’t deal with all of it.
‘‘In my view the [Lead Abatement Scheme] ameliorated the risk, but that doesn’t mean it has taken it away completely. If there are still hot spots that pose a risk then the government needs to address it.’’
Mr Piper said consistently low blood lead levels in children pointed to a low risk for those living in the area today.
‘‘There’s only one measure that we should be looking at and that is whether there are children in those critical years that have lead affectation above levels of concern,’’ he said.
The Department of Education has responded to high lead readings at Boolaroo and Speers Point public schools by reviewing cleaning services.
A spokesman said soil was replaced and new turf laid at Boolaroo, Speers Point and Argenton schools in 1998, five years before the smelter closed.
“The department has been aware of high lead levels in the soil around the former Pasminco Cockle Creek Smelter and has taken steps to ensure students and staff at nearby schools are not exposed to unacceptable lead levels,” he said.
“The department relies on advice from Hunter New England Health regarding the levels of lead contamination in soils.”
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