MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Xstrata in bad straits

Published by MAC on 2006-06-22


Xstrata in bad straits

22nd June 2006

The UK-Swiss giant, Xstrata, has been accused of emitting unacceptable levels of lead into the air from its Queensland smelter in Australia, thus endangering children's health. The company counter-claims that it's been monitoring the emissions at a "higher" level than government standards, although it admits that there's always a "small risk" attached to its operations.

But now a former senior manager at the nation's Environmental Protection Agency claims that the Queensland government connived with industry to lower the standards, with Xstrata as a beneficiary of the subterfuge.


Xstrata plays down smelter health risks

ABC News - http://www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/200606/s1668920.htm

22nd June 2006

Mining giant Xstrata says there will always be a small risk associated with industrial emissions from its copper and lead smelter at Mount Isa in north-west Queensland.

Queensland Health will begin testing blood samples from children after concerns were raised about possible fallout from the smelter.

Xstrata's Ed Turley says the emissions are within Australian regulatory requirements, but the company is continually working to improve its environmental performance.

"There will always be a risk, you can never can say there will be zero risk, but I believe that the various management strategies that are in place and that's both from an environmental perspective in terms of emissions and in terms of health and safety and hygiene, are sufficient to manage the risk associated with lead in the community," he said.


Mt Isa lead risk for children

Michelle Wiese Bockmann, The Australian

http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,19539176-601,00.html

21st June 2006

CHILDREN in the Queensland mining capital of Mount Isa have been put at risk by fallout from the city's copper and lead smelters because the state Government has failed to routinely test for lead poisoning.

A senior manager at the state's Environment Protection Agency claims political considerations have stopped the introduction of air-quality monitoring and mandatory community health checks at Mt Isa's two smelters - the largest source of lead emissions in Australia.

The monitoring was recommended 12 years ago after tests revealed the amount of lead in the blood of a third of the city's children who were tested breached World Health Organisation acceptable limits, potentially affecting their IQ and brain development.

Tim Powe, a nine-year EPA veteran who has worked as a manager of clean environment policy and is now a project manager in the planning division, accused the Government of pandering to the Mount Isa mine's owner, which has been Swiss resources giant Xstrata since 2004, because it was a major employer and a key revenue-raiser for the state.

"(The EPA is) reluctant to take on large businesses," Mr Powe said of Xstrata's exemption from environmental and health regulations. "Originally it was the threat of job losses and the threat that the move would shut down the smelters. But since that time the company has been taken over (by Xstrata) and it has the financial resources to fix the problem."

The Queensland Government has collected $1.5 billion in mining royalties in the past year, with Xstrata one of the major contributors.

Mr Powe said he warned EPA director-general James Purtill in a briefing note in February that existing monitoring, testing and reporting was inadequate and there was no clear picture on environmental and human exposure to lead pollution.

Mr Powe claimed "nothing meaningful had been done" for more than a decade to address a "serious problem" with lead in the blood of Mount Isa children.

He said it was "reasonable to assume" there were people in Mount Isa who had levels above acceptable limits set by the WHO. No tests have been undertaken since the tests on children in 1992 and 1994.

The smelters, bought by Xstrata through its takeover of MIM Holdings, released 290tonnes of lead into the air in 2004-05. By contrast, the lead smelter at Port Pirie, South Australia - where regular testing has discovered nearly 60 per cent of children have unsafe blood lead levels - emitted 47tonnes. Mr Powe said the EPA told Queensland Health director-general Uschi Schreiber about the lead risks after he wrote his briefing note.

Queensland's acting chief medical officer, Linda Selvey, responding on behalf of Ms Shreiber, said yesterday the Government planned to introduce blood tests to measure lead in Mount Isa children after concerns were raised by the EPA.

Discussions with Xstrata Copper and the mining community would be held this month. But Xstrata Copper spokesman Ed Turley said the 290 tonnes of lead emissions were blown away by prevailing winds for the "majority of the year".

Mr Turley said the company monitored lead-air concentrations at five locations and they did not exceed Australian environmental standards over a 90-day period. He said the effect of emissions on the town's 20,000 residents and employees was well managed.

He said if there was an issue it was not in the EPA's best interests as a regulator to "let dissipate" recommendations that children be tested for lead.

Asked if he could say for certain that no children's blood-lead level exceeded WHO limits, Mr Turley said: "I could not say that definitely, but I believe that the way we are managing the risk is acceptable."

Queensland Premier Peter Beattie will return today from a trip to Russia and China to face questions on the issue.

Mr Powe said legislation exempted the mine from complying with many of the state's environmental standards.

"The amendment bill was set up because when the smelters were owned by Mount Isa Mines, they threatened to shut down the smelter and go offshore rather than meet the additional costs in meeting air quality standards," he said.


Xstrata Defends Level of Smelter Emissions Testing in Australia

Bloomberg

21st June 2006

http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=10000085&sid=aLF7qqzpQXWk&refer=europe

Xstrata Plc, which owns the world's largest zinc smelter, said it monitors the environmental impact of its two smelters in Australia's Queensland state at a higher level than government standards.

``There are 15 monitoring stations located in the community,'' Kevin Hendry, Xstrata Zinc's general manager said in an e-mailed statement today. ``Monitoring is conducted in accordance with the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission standard. Xstrata sets its medical removal limit below this standard.''

Hendry made the statement after the Australian newspaper cited Tim Powe, a project manager at the state Environment Protection Agency, as saying the smelters at Mount Isa are not being monitored enough for their emissions.

The smelters at Mt. Isa, bought by Xstrata in 2004, released 290 tons of lead into the air in 2004-05, the Australian said. A lead smelter in South Australia emitted 47 tons, and testing there showed nearly 60 percent of children have unsafe blood lead levels, the paper said.

``Investment in new plant and technology has seen an almost 50 percent reduction in emissions in Mt. Isa since 2001,'' Hendry said.

To contact the reporter on this story:
Paul Waide in Melbourne at pwaide@bloomberg.net


Lessons from Mount Isa

23rd June 2006

http://magnetictimes.com/index.php?ID=1899

In her latest column, Townsville Green's spokesperson, Jenny Stirling, takes aim at how the Queensland Government nobbled its own Environmental Protection Agency over Mount Isa pollution and the implications for Townsville in anticipation of the Chalco alumina refinery decision announcement - expected just days from now. (Ed.)

How extraordinary! A senior manager of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) places his career on the line by alleging political interference in the operations of that agency's statutory responsibility to police lead emissions from the Xtrata smelters at Mt. Isa and all we get in the local paper is that "kids are to be tested in a new lead scare"; What about the political and environmental consequences?

Tim Powe, the EPA Senior Manager who has since resigned, said in the Australian article that in the early nineties, new environmental laws put pressure on MIM to control its lead emissions from its smelters. MIM followed up with a threat to go off shore with their operations. The industry is still there so it is safe to assume, as Mr Powe alleges, that a deal was struck which remains in place today for Xtrata.

Since that time, ensuing Qld governments have seen fit to side step the Goss government's world class Environmental Protection Act by issuing certain industries (worth over $30 million) 'licences to pollute' through the provisions of its Special Agreement Act. This is how the State government can establish industries like Sun Metals and the Canal estate/ Liner Terminal.

Effectively, what is illegal for yokels like you and me is not illegal for these developers. And what is more interesting is that under the provisions of these Special Agreements, our right, as citizens, to contest these proposals is legislated out of existence.

Personally, I was stunned by the former MIM employee, former Minister for Mines and Energy, Minister of Police, State Development and current Speaker of the House, Tony McGrady's comment about the possibility of high lead emissions not being an issue for people of Mt. Isa.

However, on reflection, I can see how that might be. The people there, like people in the coal industry, have become conditioned to danger, high wages and a history of abuse by mining companies- a toxic combination if ever there was one. One remembers the famous lockout at Mt. Isa in 1964.

In December 1964 MIM sacked their underground miners and closed the gates on the rest of their 4000 strong workforce.

A few months later Mt Isa Mines suspended all operations as a result of the industrial dispute and this saw the Queensland Government declare a state of emergency in the town.

In the melee that followed, the union movement was decimated by internal politics which pitted the Catholics against the communists. Yes, it was the time of the Cold War, the DLP was at the height of its political power and Mt. Isa was never the same again.

I am saddened by the whole issue of the lead emissions but the ramifications for the city of Townsville are too huge to ignore. As the countdown for the Chalco decision looms, people concerned with the health outcomes for this community and the environment need to be mindful of what has happened in Mt. Isa. Are we too going to become conditioned to a cycle of abusing worker's and resident's health and safety, high economic growth and a government which increasingly ignores our rights as citizens for the sake of developers? That, dear readers, is the real worry for then we have no recourse to any justice let alone social justice.

Jenny Stirling

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