Boolaroo land contamination

14th November 2017

Mr GREG PIPER ( Lake Macquarie ) ( 20:21 ): More than a century of lead and zinc smelting at the former Pasminco site at Boolaroo in my electorate has left a legacy of soil contamination that still burdens the local community. The level of risk this poses should not be overstated to a point that causes undue concern, but also it should not be understated and the need to manage the issue must be taken seriously. To address the problem, the former Labor Government agreed to a lead abatement strategy [LAS], which was implemented between 2007 and 2013 to address soil contamination and associated health risks. The effectiveness of the LAS was called into question following a 2014 research study by Macquarie University students supervised by Professor Mark Taylor, which found evidence of elevated lead levels in the yards of suburban homes and public parks.

The Environment Protection Authority [EPA] later convened a panel of experts, which became known as the Lead Expert Working Group [LEWG], to review the effectiveness of the scheme. It also appointed a community reference group, which I chair, to, amongst other things, liaise with the LEWG on behalf of the community. In late 2016 the LEWG released its report into managing the legacy lead issue at Boolaroo, making 22 recommendations. I do not wish to go through all those recommendations here now, but I am pleased to say that I have been working with the Government and the appropriate Ministers to get a positive outcome and I believe we are very close to achieving those main aims. However, I regret to say that one aspect of those recommendations has led to an almost farcical situation where the only victims have been the current residents and homeowners at Boolaroo.

Late last year the EPA announced that residents would soon be able to dispose of lead-contaminated soil at Newcastle's Summerhill waste facility, and with only a modest premium above the cost for uncontaminated fill. At the time, residents were faced with the hugely expensive option of transporting contaminated soil to Kemps Creek in Sydney's south because there was no local repository. They were faced with disposal costs as high as $800 a tonne, but the Summerhill deal would reduce that cost to about $275 a tonne when the scheme was introduced in February. February came and went, and so did March, April and May, and three more months without Summerhill becoming available. I was made aware of the problem when I was contacted by local resident Mark Hambier, who had tried to dispose of contaminated soil from his residential property at Boolaroo.

Representations I made to the EPA and to Newcastle and Lake Macquarie councils elicited the information that the deal had been delayed and that the EPA and Newcastle council would soon have the issue resolved. They later announced that the scheme would be available to the likes of Mr Hambier by 14 August. Mr Hambier had pushed on with his plans but was forced to leave piles of contaminated soil on his property. With 40 tonnes of soil to dispose of, he was facing a $32,000 bill to transport it to Sydney but opted to wait again for the promised Summerhill option, which would cost him only $11,000. Then there was another setback when Newcastle council delayed receipt of the material until after a workplace health and safety review. This was sensible, but clearly should have been done long before a starting date of 14 August was announced.

Just when everyone thought this complete shambles could not get any worse, it did. Not only were things delayed again, but the fine print revealed a mandatory requirement that the contaminated soil now had to be bagged and measured in bulk bags—which would add significant cost for Mr Hambier and others in his position. The shambolic nature of this scheme has been an embarrassment to all concerned. For whatever reason, all parties have failed to do what they set out to do, which was to provide an easy process for people to dispose of contaminated soil from their yards at a reasonable cost. While Summerhill will now accept such waste, the eleventh hour changes to conditions mean that the objective will not be met because the costs will make it prohibitive for many people.

This is a poor outcome all round, and I genuinely fear that contaminated soil that could be removed easily and stored safely in a controlled situation will now be more prone to being disposed of illegally. We are left with nothing more than a shambles, a lot of wasted time and a mountain of frustration. I have great sympathy for the likes of Mr Mark Hambier and others who will come after him, who, through no fault of their own, are the victims of a ridiculous bureaucratic mess. Unless Newcastle council is willing to revisit its requirements, then Lake Macquarie City Council and the EPA should revisit the matter with a view to building a new repository in the local government area of Lake Macquarie. While it will not help Mark Hambier—because he will have moved on by then—it will certainly assist people like him in the future, who will otherwise continue to carry the cost burden from the legacies of lead smelting in the region.

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