With a reputation for achieving results, the Newcastle Herald has embarked on a campaign that already has prompted the NSW government to review its industrial clean-up strategies after the paper’s investigations indicated Lake Macquarie residents faced the risk of lead poisoning.
The paper is no stranger to uncovering injustice in the community and spurring authorities to action. Its Shine The Light campaign, which pushed for an inquiry into child sexual abuse in Newcastle, was vindicated when the NSW government launched a Special Commission of Inquiry in 2013 into the allegations.
“They tell you at editing school that you shouldn’t start a campaign unless you know you can achieve a result,” editor Chad Watson said. “That wasn’t the case with Shine The Light – we decided to do it because it was the right thing to do for our community.
“It wasn’t a campaign designed to sell newspapers – far from it. It was a campaign for justice. A campaign for the truth. A campaign based on trust.”
The Newcastle Herald’s Toxic Truth campaign is not dissimilar.
The campaign began late last year when the paper brought into question the success of a clean-up of homes surrounding a lead and zinc smelter at Lake Macquarie. The NSW Government had described the clean-up as “the most comprehensive of its kind in Australia”, but the paper found that officials did not carry out investigations to see if it had worked.
The Newcastle Herald commissioned soil testing in conjunction with Macquarie University and dangerous levels of lead, arsenic and other poisons were found at homes, parks, playgrounds, schools and in public areas around the smelter site in Boolaroo and surrounding suburbs.
Lead is widely known to cause lower IQ and ADHD, particularly in children, yet residents were not warned of the dangers of allowing their children to play in the dirt around the former Pasminco smelter, the Herald reported.
The series launched in November with 17-pages documenting what it said was generations of neglect by successive state governments that had led to serious health problems among residents. The Herald website also has a dedicated landing page for the campaign with video interviews, historic photo galleries and an online interactive map that gave users detailed findings about the 130 soil and vacuum cleaner dust samples taken across three suburbs that are home to more than 5500 people.
Newcastle Herald investigations editor Donna Page said questions were raised over the impact of more than a century of smelter operation ever since Pasminco closed the facility. “There were official assurances that the area and the residents were safe and we felt it important to test if that was accurate,” she said.
Ms Page said the investigation found that hundreds of families potentially had been left in harm’s way. “We continue to push for action to ensure the community is safe,” she said.
Pasminco was fined $3000 for pollution breaches while remediating the contaminated Boolaroo site between March 2013 and February 2014 – a penalty residents viewed as insignificant.
Other Herald journalists involved in the campaign team included Matthew Kelly, Helen Gregory, Damon Cronshaw and Greg Ray.
The campaign prompted the NSW government to set up an expert working group to review the clean-up program, including Macquarie University’s Mark Taylor. This month it established a Community Lead Reference Group to consult the community in the search for a strategy to deal with the pollution.
It also has undertaken soil testing and testing of resident’s blood lead levels, committed to creating a free tip for toxic soil disposal, and investigated options for cleaning and sealing contaminated public areas.
The test results commissioned by the Herald were used as the basis for an academic research paper and presented at an international environment conference in April, and a group of long-term residents with ill health have combined to push for a class action after a public meeting in February attended by Environment Protection Authority chairman and chief executive Barry Buffier.
Mark Taylor, professor of environmental science at Macquarie University, is on the working group elected by the government and carried out the soil testing comissioned by the Herald and says the paper has “done a great job”.
“They’ve forced the EPA to have another look at these issues – and that’s a good thing,” Professor Taylor said.
“It’s not been resolved to the satisfaction of the community and it’s just not appropriate that industry contaminates communities and walks away.”
Boolaro Action Group’s Jim Sullivan, a former environmental health officer, sees the Newcastle Herald as the community’s saviour for its stance on the issue.
“They cop a lot of flak from all sides. They cop it from the regulators and originally they copped it from the community,” he said. “But I think the community now recognises how important it is to get this out there and get it cleaned up, for the sake of our children.”
Editor Chad Watson said the paper was determined to keep up the pressure on the authorities.
“The Herald is a cornerstone of this society and with that comes great responsibility,” he said.
“This newspaper is unashamedly parochial and our audience expects us to champion Hunter causes, people and events – and we try our hardest not to let them down.”
Thousands respond to Newcastle Herald’s thankyou call
The paper’s role as a lightning rod for community spirit was highlighted in the recent floods in Newcastle.
More than 12,000 people responded to a Facebook post by the Newcastle Herald calling for readers to thank emergency services and volunteers following fatal storms in the NSW Hunter region.
The post reached more than a quarter of a million people, and attracted thousands of likes, shares and comments.
Around 5000 of those who responded and thanked rescuers and emergency workers had their names published in a special print edition of the paper.
“Like all relationships, what the Newcastle Herald does for our audience, and vice-versa, is very much based on trust. We would be lost without each other,” the paper’s editor Chad Watson said.
“During the storms we had Herald journalists who . . . came to work when their own homes were damaged, or their families were without power and hot water.
“They turned up and they put in because they love what they do, and they care for our community. It’s why we do what we do.”
For more news from The Newspaper Works, click here.