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Toxic Truth

The Newcastle Herald’s Toxic Truth investigation revealed the shortcomings of a state-sanctioned clean-up of industrial pollution at hundreds of homes surrounding an old lead and zinc smelter at north Lake Macquarie, New South Wales. It found that despite the government publicly describing the suburban clean-up as ‘‘the…

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Toxic TruthThe Newcastle Herald’s Toxic Truth investigation revealed the shortcomings of a state-sanctioned clean-up of industrial pollution at hundreds of homes surrounding an old lead and zinc smelter at north Lake Macquarie, New South Wales.

It found that despite the government publicly describing the suburban clean-up as ‘‘the most comprehensive of its kind in Australia’’, authorities had done little to investigate if it worked.

Little was also done to warn people living in the contaminated areas around the former Pasminco smelter of the dangers to their children from playing in the dirt.

Experts warn that ingesting even tiny amounts of lead can cause lost intelligence and ADHD. Scientists also believe children who are exposed to high levels of lead pollution are more likely to commit violent crimes in later years.

A 2013 study based on NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Environment Protection Authority data found a high correlation between childhood lead exposure and assault.

Soil testing commissioned by the Newcastle Herald, in conjunction with Macquarie University, found dangerous levels of lead, arsenic and other poisons at homes, parks, playgrounds, schools and in public areas around the smelter site in Boolaroo and surrounding suburbs.

The series, launched with a special Saturday edition of the paper last November comprising 17 pages of coverage, revealed a history of generations of neglect by successive state governments and serious health problems among residents.

It uncovered that the smelter operator kept secret for 20 years research showing that black slag – a smelting waste product – was dangerous to the environment and people. That slag had long been distributed and dumped as landfill throughout the district – across countless sites including backyards, parks, footpaths, school playgrounds and the lake foreshore.

Toxic Truth has resulted in the NSW government setting up an expert working group to review the clean-up program.

The EPA and NSW Health have taken a range of actions, including testing soil, testings residents’ blood lead-levels, committing to establishing a free tip for toxic soil disposal and investigating options for cleaning up and sealing contaminated public areas.

Most recently, the government established a community consultative committee to assist in finding a strategy to deal with the pollution.  Pasminco was also fined $3000 – “the equivalent of a mosquito bite on the arm” according to residents – over pollution breaches while remediating the toxic legacy of its Boolaroo lead smelter, between March 2013 and February 2014.

A packed-out public meeting in February was attended by EPA chief Barry Buffier and a group of long-term residents with ill health have combined to push for a class action.

The test results were used as the basis for an academic research paper and presented at an international environment conference in April. Toxic Truth gained national media exposure, with an airing on ABC Television’s Lateline to coincide with the launch of our campaign, and gained international coverage from environment groups.

Newcastle Herald coverage includes a website landing page, a series of video interviews, historic picture galleries and an online interactive map that gives users detailed findings about the 130 soil and vacuum cleaner dust samples taken across three suburbs that are home to more than 5500 people.

Toxic Truth_map

Newcastle Herald investigations editor Donna Page said ever since the smelter closed there had been questions about the legacy of a century’s worth of industrial pollution.

“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.  “Our investigation found that hundreds of families had been left in harm’s way and we continue to push for action to ensure the community is safe.”

Other Herald journalists involved in the campaign team included Matthew Kelly, Helen Gregory, Damon Cronshaw and Greg Ray.

Herald editor Chad Watson said the Toxic Truth series had shown there was much more to the lead dilemma than the blood-lead levels of the population.

Homeowners had been forced to cough up for extra costs to test and decontaminate their properties before renovation or extension projects could be approved by council.

“Justice delayed is indeed justice denied with what has happened in the battle for Boolaroo,” he said. “The Newcastle Herald is determined to maintain the momentum by pressuring authorities to do something about a situation which has been sadly neglected for way too long.”

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