Boolaroo Lead Contamination

More than a century of lead and zinc smelting at the former Pasminco site at Boolaroo has left a legacy of soil contamination in northern Lake Macquarie.

The Lead Abatement Scheme (LAS) was implemented between 2007 and 2013 to address soil contamination and associated health risks, but its effectiveness was called into question following a 2014 research study by Macquarie University students which found evidence of elevated lead levels remaining in local yards and public grounds.

The Environment Protection Authority later convened a panel of experts (including the academic who led the Macquarie University study) known as the Lead Expert Working Group (LEWG) to review the effectiveness of the LAS. It also appointed a community reference group, which I chaired, to liaise with the expert panel on behalf of residents and other community members.

In addition, the Hunter Public Health Unit resumed voluntary testing of blood levels in children during 2015 to help determine the health implications of any ongoing lead contamination.

Around this time I travelled twice at my own expense to northern Idaho in the US where there has been a large-scale remediation of a site which once housed the largest lead smelter in the world.

The Bunker Hill lead and zinc smelter ceased operating in the early 1980s. The communities of Kellogg and Smelterville at either end of the smelter site have similar legacy contamination issues to those at Boolaroo.

During my first visit in 2015, I saw that there were easier ways to manage the lead contamination issue at Boolaroo which produced a better outcome for the community. They didn’t place extra burden on the residents. They made it easy to dispose of contaminated material and they had a very good certification system which allowed for an accurate record of pollution without any punitive impacts.

During my second visit in 2016 I was joined by Lake Macquarie council officer Alice Howe and the Environment Protection Authority’s contaminated sites expert Matt James (see our video report above).

In late 2016, the LEWG released its report into managing the legacy lead issue at Boolaroo, making 22 recommendations which will assist Boolaroo residents and manage any future health and environmental factors.

You can read more about those recommendations HERE, but among the key recommendations was the establishment of a fund which will assist landowners with the costs of managing lead issues, as well as the ongoing monitoring of surface and groundwater, and the enhanced surveillance of blood lead levels in residents.

It was very unfortunate that Pasminco left the Boolaroo site in the state that it did, leaving it in the hands of administrators. But it’s happened and we can’t go back and correct it. There is a moral argument there but it’s not a beneficial one.

Having said that, I think the LEWG’s recommendations are a very positive way forward and a good outcome. Digging up the whole town was never an option, but this latest action addresses any possible risk and lays out a path forward. We can’t remove all the lead there, but we can manage it so it’s not a health risk.