Regulatory failures are exposing communities in mining towns to toxic emissions, a new report says. But pragmatism about jobs may be stifling dissent. By J.J. Rose.

Silence on toxic emissions in mining towns

When governments talk of burden-sharing to save the economy, they don’t often mean risking your life. But for the residents of Queensland’s Mount Isa (pop. 22,000) and South Australia’s Port Pirie (pop. 18,000), that possibility is very real as mining projects threaten their lives even as it underpins their livelihoods.

That’s the view of Professor Mark Taylor from Macquarie University, the lead author of an article in the academic journal Aeolian Research this month that exposes systemic failures in issues of public health and environmental degradation in both regional towns.

The report, “Licensed to Pollute But Not to Poison”, highlights key weaknesses in the monitoring, measurement, reporting and distribution of data associated with airborne pollutants in the Mount Isa and Port Pirie areas. Specifically, the study looks into airborne emissions of the neurotoxins arsenic, cadmium, sulphur dioxide and lead in the two locations, which result from mining and smelting operations. The authors cite research that links these substances to neurocognitive impairment and potentially fatal respiratory illnesses.

Taylor and his colleagues say their research points to fundamental flaws in the legal and bureaucratic framework surrounding these processes. For instance, they claim that there are substantial inconsistencies between state and federal laws, and that state and commonwealth co-operative arrangements, including those specifically pertaining to air quality, are being ignored. The report “has revealed several deficiencies in the approval, regulation and oversight provisions, as well as the misleading and limited data available to the public to make informed decisions about their place of residence”.

“In both cases,” say the authors, “major industry seems to be able to leverage or have captured the regulatory process for its own benefit.”

Taylor told The Saturday Paper that “governments have been silent on emissions” and that they are “asleep at the wheel”.

“It looks to me that people are being used as a subsidy for mining companies,” he says. “We can do better. These are toxic substances, causing harm to the public.”

He says the current system can be improved by more co-ordinated state–federal structures, stricter adherence to existing legislation, and conducting more regular measurements. Ultimately, he would hope to see lower emissions limits.

Taylor also calls for making public access to the monitoring data easier. “The data is publicly available,” he says, “but it is dispersed in different locations. It’s extremely difficult. It took us a long time to fathom what’s happening and what is the data. If we find it difficult, how does Joe Public go?”

1 . Government denials

Mount Isa’s mines and smelters are Australia’s leading emitters of arsenic, lead and sulphur dioxide. Taylor’s paper notes the asthma-related hospitalisation rates in Mount Isa are 80 per cent higher than the rest of Queensland and that deaths from asthma-related illness in the city are 322 per cent higher than the state average.

The source of the emissions is the copper and zinc mine and smelters operated by Glencore Xstrata, a Swiss-based mining giant. The company’s subsidiary, Mount Isa Mines (MIM), employs 5000 workers, mostly from the city, and annually injects $1 billion into Queensland’s economy, according to its website. It also generates a level of toxic emissions far above the norm, says Taylor. For instance, he writes that the maximum monthly 24-hour average arsenic-in-air concentrations during 2011 in Mount Isa “exceeded the Queensland annual air quality objective ... in all months except for May”.

A spokeswoman for MIM rejected the Aeolian Research report, saying: “Mount Isa has one of the most intensive air-quality monitoring systems of any city in Australia, with more than 30 monitoring units located across the city.” She added that the company “has always operated under a regulatory environment managed by the Queensland government, and through this, has always been required to comply with approved air-quality emissions standards”.

The Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection also condemned the report. “The report is not only misleading, it is incorrect on a number of points,” a spokesman said. “The Queensland government has significantly strengthened legislative requirements to bring the Mount Isa Mines operation into line with contemporary environmental standards.”

Referring to an environmental “authority to operate” issued in 2011, the department’s spokesman added that it “recognises that it will take time for this 80-year-old operation to be brought up to contemporary standards”.

In Port Pirie, lead emissions have been a concern for the best part of a century. The city, about 220 kilometres north of Adelaide, hosts the world’s biggest lead smelter and is the second-highest emitter of lead in Australia. It is the nation’s fourth-highest emitter of sulphur dioxide.

“Air quality in Port Pirie is also impacted by elevated arsenic and cadmium concentrations,” according to the Aeolian Research report.

The lead and zinc smelter has been operated by Swiss-based Nyrstar since 2007, when the company was created by the merger of the smelting operations from the Australian company Zinifex and the colonial-era Belgian company Umicore. Nyrstar did not respond to an invitation from The Saturday Paper to comment on the report and its details.

However, the South Australian health department dismissed concerns about reporting of lead levels in the community. The Director of Public Health, Dr Kevin Buckett, said: “SA Health is confident that the statistical methods used in the Port Pirie blood lead level reports provide the most accurate analysis of the blood lead level trends for the purposes of public health protection.” He added a note of caution: “There are still a number of children with higher than acceptable blood lead levels.”

2 . Fear of risking jobs

Mark Taylor maintains there is systemic silence and misinformation on airborne neurotoxins from mines and smelters, but he doesn’t necessarily see a conspiracy. “I’m not sure the system was constructed deliberately to be difficult,” he says.

While it may be understandable that governments, bureaucracies and corporations are not eager to publicly discuss the fine details of toxic emissions reports – Taylor says that “some know what’s happening, but they look away” – perhaps surprisingly, a culture of denial among the wider community also contributes to the lack of scrutiny.

In Mount Isa, the risk of losing 5000 jobs is clearly significant. Mining defines the town. In Port Pirie, 2500 jobs, the breakdown of the manufacturing sector in the state in recent months, and a wariness not to jeopardise Nyrstar’s promised $385 million smelter upgrade, carry heavy weights – heavier, possibly, than the leaden air.

The economic value of both companies to their respective communities, as job creators, big spenders and community participants, as well as their role in funnelling royalties and profits into the state, seems enough to ensure the silence of the majority of the community. Or at least a resigned acceptance.

Dissent is unpopular. Damian Scattini, principal with lawyers Maurice Blackburn, has worked on a lawsuit against MIM in Mount Isa on behalf of
a group of community claimants seeking compensation for the effects of airborne pollution. He says people are afraid to speak.

“People are concerned [about risks] but are also concerned about being ostracised. Those brave souls who came forward in Mount Isa were subjected to vile abuse and were called ‘dirty Abos’ and so on. They were just concerned mothers.”

The case is still before the courts, and Scattini is researching the possibility of a similar suit in Port Pirie.

“Barry”, a long-time Port Pirie resident speaking on condition of anonymity, said that in 40 years he’s never seen air pollution as bad as it is now. “People don’t know what’s going on,” he says. “You see it blowing over the town, with a northerly breeze blowing and guys playing footy, and they don’t realise they’re breathing in arsenic.”

But Barry well recognises the significance of the Nyrstar facility to the town’s prosperity. “If this place goes down, Port Pirie is nothing. The town relies on this joint,” he says.

The dependence on the smelter for jobs means many locals do not look favourably on whistleblowers. “If word got out I’m speaking to you blokes about the company,” Barry says, “I’d have my house burnt down.”

3 . Extent of problem unknown

Mark Taylor warns that issues of airborne emissions of neurotoxins associated with the mining industry are not isolated to Mount Isa and Port Pirie. “For sure it is happening elsewhere. For example, there is no data – no data – in Kalgoorlie. Or take Broken Hill – there’s no lead-in-air monitoring.”

Scattini agrees. “In my experience of these things, this is not only South Australia and Queensland, but Australia-wide and worldwide.”

Taylor’s hope is that the Aeolian Research report he led will receive wider attention and convince communities to recognise they are putting their lives at risk to protect the industry. He also hopes to provoke governments to improve regulations he describes as “grossly inadequate”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 10, 2014 as "Something in the air".

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J.J. Rose is a journalist and author who has also worked as a policy and media adviser. His novel Game will be released in June.

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