MAC: Mines and Communities

Locals plan to sue mine over 'toxic metal'

Published by MAC on 2010-01-31
Source: The World Today, The Mercury (2010-01-27)

Chinese operation in Australia accused of poisoning

Locals plan to sue mine over 'toxic metal'

By Felicity Ogilvie, The World Today

27 January 2010

Residents of a small town on Tasmania's west coast claim to have been poisoned by contaminated mine water and say they plan to sue the mine responsible.

There are nearly 1,500 residents in Rosebery and most houses are close to the town's mine.

Locals say heavy metals from the poly-metallic mine have been seeping onto their properties, a claim disputed by the mine.

Local Kay Seltitzas says she has suffered a range of symptoms since moving to Rosebery and she is part of a group of 10 locals who are planning to sue.

"Around 2006, 2007 I went down to 42 kilos from 68, I was chunky, and I couldn't eat, I had trouble drinking, I couldn't sleep, hair loss, nerve damage, headaches," she said.

"I started getting tingling in my hands and my feet, I had really bad headaches and just felt dreadful."

The Rosebery mine produces zinc, lead, copper, silver and gold, and Ms Seltitzas says tests to her property have turned up some shocking results.

"In 2008 my next-door neighbour saw her cat drink the ground water ... and the cat became very, very ill," she said.

"So unbeknownst to me she had the soil water analysed through the government laboratories and the results were shocking when they came back.

"So I had my property tested and it turns out that the lead level on my property was even worse."

Investigation reopened

Residents told the Health Department of their concerns but after an investigation in 2008 it found no evidence that people were suffering from heavy metal poisoning.

The investigation was recently reopened, but the deputy director of public health, Dr Chrissie Pickin, says the department has conducted rigorous testing.

"In the past we've done lots of work, we've investigated thoroughly," she said.

"We brought in an expert toxicologist who, I presume, had found that there were no grounds for the residents' contention that they were being exposed to heavy metals through the environment, levels high enough to concern their health concerns.

"Our final report was published in April last year. The expert toxicologist did express concerns that whatever we found, the residents had a very, very strongly held belief that they were being poisoned.

"And they obviously continued to look for somebody who could help them with that, and a doctor from Launceston has expressed an opinion that despite a lack of confirmatory biochemical tests, he was concerned that they may have been poisoned after all.

"Obviously we take something like that very seriously and we are currently performing a cluster investigation on that group."

The mine's former owners - Oz Minerals - found no evidence that locals were being poisoned, and the mine has since been sold to Chinese-owned company MinMetals.

The mine's general manager, John Lamb, says the new owners have decided to test the entire town for evidence of heavy metals in the environment.

"That will involve testing in excess of 100 sites, they'll be taking soil samples, they take dust from roof cavities, and also any water that might be standing in yards," he said.

"And that's then subjected to a laboratory analysis for a suite of 10 metal toxicants."

Compensation claim

In 2008 the mine turned a $73 million profit despite the global financial crisis, and residents who say they have been poisoned are now looking for compensation.

Peter Long from law firm Slater and Gordon is looking at the case and says there is "no doubt" locals are being poisoned.

"There is absolutely no doubt that these people are suffering heavy metal poisoning; the strong inference is that it comes from the mine, but that is going to require some more investigation," he said.

Despite Mr Long's claim, Mr Lamb says there is no proof the mine is responsible.

"I'm always concerned to hear that people in the town believe that they're ill and believe that they might be ill from living in that town," he said.

"The fact of the matter is that I don't believe that's obvious at this point, and I'll be waiting for the Department of Health and Human Services to complete their reopened study before any conclusions are drawn there."

Ms Seltitzas thinks her house has been so contaminated that she has moved out of Rosebery, and says taking legal action is the only way of getting compensation.

"The property should have been at the very least remediated [but] nothing has been done, nothing whatsoever," she said.

"And it's not just us saying it, I think the involvement of Slater and Gordon might speak for itself."

Lawyers say they need a few more weeks to investigate before they can let the residents know if they have enough evidence to mount a case against the mine.


Town's poison fears grow

Damien Brown, The Mercury

13 January 2010

CATS from a West Coast community have been found with arsenic in their blood resulting in their death, a new report reveals.

Members of the Rosebery community who suspect they have suffered poisoning from nearby mining operations will this morning release new veterinary pathology tests on dead animals showing lethal levels of arsenic in their system.

It comes as the possibility of a class action against the State Government continues to loom, with high-profile lawyers set to brief Rosebery residents next week.

A community meeting being held next Tuesday will be attended by former New South Wales police officer and barrister John Rowe, who has a special interest in personal injury, pollution and class actions.

Mr Rowe will speak on the factual circumstances surrounding the exposure of Rosebery residents to heavy metal pollution, the management of the threat by the Department of Health and Human Services and legal obligations of persons who may be responsible or obligated by statute.

Peter Long, a chemical injury law specialist with Slater & Gordon, will also attend and advise residents about the mechanics of engaging a lawyer and the legal avenues that can be pursued.

After a 16-month battle, the group of Rosebery residents was able to gain some heavyweight support in the high-profile law firm Slater & Gordon, which plans to act on their behalf.

The Tasmanian Health Department has also agreed to reopen an investigation into risks of contamination in the town and the zinc mine's new Chinese owners have agreed to testing. The meeting will be at the Rosebery Memorial Hall at 7.30pm.

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