Lake Macquarie Lead Contamination

24th February 2016

Mr GREG PIPER (Lake Macquarie) [4.40 p.m.]: I wish to update the House on progress concerning lead contamination in northern Lake Macquarie and note the concerns of local residents about the continued stigmatization of their suburb. It has arisen from a recent renewed focus on its post-industrial challenges. Lead contamination in Boolaroo and the surrounding areas is the legacy of a lead and zinc smelter that operated for more than 100 years until closure in 2003. Measures to address these legacy issues have included: a lead abatement strategy for eligible residential properties; a blood lead monitoring program operated by Hunter Health; heightened controls for development activity; and, of course, general public awareness.

In late 2014 research by Macquarie University students found that high lead levels remain in soil on some residential and public properties and challenged the effectiveness of the lead abatement strategy. In response the Environment Protection Authority appointed an expert working panel to review the strategy and a community reference group, which I chair, to liaise with the panel and be a conduit to the community. Importantly, a new round of blood lead testing in young children was recently undertaken by Hunter Health. It returned pleasing results with the level of all children tested found to be below the recently lowered benchmark recommended by the National Health and Medical Research Council of five micrograms per decilitre. Over the past 18 months this issue has received considerable media attention.

I acknowledge that this media focus has, if nothing else, provided a valuable opportunity to revisit the issue of lead contamination, evaluate the effectiveness of the strategies put in place and determine how we can ensure the health of children growing up in the affected suburbs is not compromised. This is a good thing, but I am aware that the nature of this continued focus on the suburb has frustrated and annoyed many residents who believe it paints an overly pessimistic picture of the area and the people who live there.

There is concern that not enough attention has been paid to the positive outcomes achieved so far such as the low levels of lead detected in the blood of young children. This result demonstrates that while challenges still exist in managing exposure to lead in local soil, the community is meeting those challenges well. We cannot demolish residential Boolaroo, remove the top layers of soil and then replace everything afterwards. It is not practical to do it and it is not what the local people want. They are proud of their homes and their town and they are, by and large, confident of their ability to manage legacy lead issues now that the most serious contamination source, that of lead pollutants from stack emissions at the former plant, is long gone. What they want to see from this current review by the lead expert working group and the response from the State Government are tangible outcomes that will help them to continue managing those issues into the future without undue burden on residents.

They want to know how the risk of exposure to contaminated soil on private property and public land can be minimised in areas if and where the lead abatement strategy has not been effective. They want a possible future fund or some other financial safety net to ensure the community can deal with ongoing contamination issues; access to a conveniently located waste facility where they can dispose of contaminated soil without additional cost; consistent and streamlined processes for development of their property; that authorities will respond in a timely manner when areas of exposed slag or contaminated soil are discovered—as happened last year at Marmong Point after a major storm; and, most importantly, they want confidence that children will be safe from lead and that their homes, their suburbs, and their communities are not re-stigmatised on a regular basis.

Last week the Newcastle Herald highlighted findings from a new study led by Professor Mark Taylor of Macquarie University, a member of the lead expert working group. The study links higher than average levels of violent crime to a number of communities, including Boolaroo, where perpetrators had been exposed to high levels of lead pollution as children. I have little doubt that people have been adversely affected in this way, and I believe the statistical correlation established by the study supports theories on lead exposure and delayed behavioural impacts. The findings are a salient reminder of the risk of lead in our communities but should be understood to reflect a time in this area when this contamination spewed from an operational plant through its stacks. What we have now is a different circumstance with the source removed and active strategies in place to manage the situation. Strategies are being reviewed at this time.

In some ways we also have a better situation than many other older residential areas, particularly in cities, where the lead legacy of leaded fuel and leaded paint is also very real but not as well understood by the community. It has now been 18 months since the issue of lead contamination resurfaced and it is important for the outcomes that I mentioned earlier to be achieved sooner rather than later. I told a recent public gathering that I want to see a clear strategy for dealing with the legacy of lead pollution before the end of the year, and I trust the Government will recognise the need for, and ensure the resolution of, these long-running issues.

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