MAC: Mines and Communities

Port lead disaster gets cosmetic response

Published by MAC on 2009-08-10

MAC special edition on lead

Lead carbonate - "white lead" - is employed in paint and cosmetics. Although its use is banned in several countries, it continues to be manufactured in Australia.

In December 2006, shipping containers of the material, mined by Magallen Metals, blew open at the Western Australian port of Esperance, directly poisoning seven children, "showering" the area with lead and nickel dust, and killing thousands of birds.

This June, Esperance port officials pleaded guilty to several charges of pollution; but neither the state government nor the mining company were held to account.

Meanwhile, the lead consignment headed for China - where no doubt it will  end up in household paint, if not on the faces of some of its people...

Port admits pollution but refuses to say sorry

11th June 2009


The Esperance Port Authority has admitted responsibility for a series of pollution incidents, the most serious of which showered the town in toxic lead carbonate dust in December 2006.
It pleaded guilty in Kalgoorlie Magistrate’s Court yesterday to six charges relating to the events, in which the port was contaminated by inadequately sealed consignments of lead carbonate and nickel dust.
Port officials agreed to the plea after the Department of Environment and Conservation dropped the most serious charge of causing pollution through criminal negligence and agreed on a set of “key facts” surrounding the case.
Officially, seven children under five were contaminated by lead and 420 birds were killed by lead poisoning.
But some believe about 9000 birds died and claim many Esperance residents were exposed to dangerous lead levels. The authority, which faces a maximum fine of $1.325 million, will be sentenced on September 11.

Port Authority chief executive Dennis Parsons said the guilty plea was a corporate decision to avert a long and expensive legal battle.

Capt. Parsons said the authority would have contested a charge of criminal negligence. “The port acknowledges errors of judgment were made,” he said.

“However, there was never any deliberate wrongdoing by anybody at the port.” Capt. Parsons refused to apologise to Esperance residents and insisted that the authority was not solely to blame.

“The extent to which the port owes anybody an apology is debatable,” he said.

The port had been following its guidelines correctly at the time of the incidents but some consignments had been “overly dusty”.

Lead carbonate exports through the port were stopped in April 2007, but bulk nickel dust shipments continue.
Capt Parsons said there had been a “mammoth change” to the port’s safety regulations.
Community campaigners welcomed the guilty plea, but said neither the State Government nor Magellan Metals, which delivered the lead carbonate to the port, had been similarly held to account.
Mandy Waters, whose now threeyear-old son Kael was one of the children affected, said residents were still awaiting compensation. Ms Waters said she would not be pleased to see the port punished while other agencies involved were not. “The port is the only entity that has done the right thing here,” she said.

Lead saga draws to a close


8 May 2009

AN almost palpable wave of relief swept through the Esperance community as the second and final shipment of lead left Esperance Port on May 4, making its way to China.

The shipment consisted of 329 containers loaded into double-lined two tonne bags, packed into sea containers and sealed.

The process of preparing the stranded Magellan lead for transport involved bagging and sealing it in a shed under negative pressure.

Emissions from the shed were monitored continuously during the operation but there was no detectable lead during the bagging and containerisation.

Esperance Port Authority Chief Executive Officer Captain Dennis Parsons said the community has been very patient throughout the process. “We appreciate the patience and the confidence the community has shown,” Captain Parsons said.

“The Port is exceptionally proud of their performance in actioning of the cleanup and congratulates Magellan for their efforts.

“The exercise has been very successful and of immense value in relation to containerised services, which is an element of port growth and diversification.”

Captain Parsons said it was important now in the current economic downturn for the port to focus on future sustainability and growth.

“It is also important that we learn from our lessons in the past rather than dwell on them.”

Magellan Metals and the Esperance Port Authority have assisted each other throughout the stockpile removal operation and will continue to work closely together to ensure the final completion of the lead removal plan.

Magellan General Manager Corporate Social Responsibility Dr John Yeates said the company was delighted the shipments of lead carbonate from Esperance had been finalised and was pleased the lead removal operation had proceeded smoothly over the past three months.

“All of the stringent health, safety and environmental conditions put in place by the Department of Environment and Conservation for the lead removal operation were met.

“This clearly demonstrates that our sealed shipment process is safe, environmentally sound and is setting the way for global safety standards in the handling and transport of lead carbonate concentrate.”

Member for the Agricultural Region Wendy Duncan MLC said the people of Esperance could now put the past behind them and look to the future. “It is great news that the promise of the Premier and the Liberal National alliance has been fulfilled and we can get on with the final clean-up of the town.”

In welcoming the successful loading and exporting of the stranded Magellan Lead to China Premier Colin Barnett and Transport Minister Simon O’Brien said they were looking forward to starting the next phase of the recovery plan – thorough cleaning individual homes.

“Removing the stranded lead was our number one priority and both the Minister and I are glad to see the back of it,” Mr Barnett said.

“The lead contamination of Esperance was one of the State’s worst environmental disasters and the community has been very keen to move on from it.”

Transport Minister Simon O’Brien said efforts to clean up the town were largely ineffective until the lead was safely removed.

“With that safely behind us, I am pleased that we can now get on with the job of cleaning individual homes.

Locals for Esperance Development (LED) member Michelle Crisp said it was a positive step to see the lead leaving Esperance. “Now the lead is gone we can assess the cleanup and work towards having it done in a timely manner.”

Cleaning the contamination of each home could cost as much as $10,000 and the total cost for the clean-up could be as high as $20million.

It is expected the number of properties needing to be cleaned will be known before the end of the year. Cleaning of affected properties could extend through to 2011, with major expenditures in 2009 and 2010.

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