Lead-mining: the ugly truth about Mount Isa

Her infant daughter, Stella, did not thrive, though. She was constantly getting infections, and her weight see-sawed. When the Queensland health department announced a blood screening survey for under-fives, Ms Hare took her along. She discovered Stella had a blood lead level of 13 micrograms per decilitre (mcg/dl), well above the World Health Organisation limit of 10mcg/dl.

“You could have blown me off the chair with a feather,” says Ms Hare. “I was in shock. I would wake up crying in the night.” She was not the only Mount Isa parent to receive unpleasant news. More than one-tenth of children tested were found to have potentially unsafe levels of the toxic metal in their blood.

While the source seems likely to be the mine site, the mine’s owners, the Anglo-Swiss giant Xstrata, deny responsibility. Instead, they point to exposed outcrops of naturally mineralised bedrock in the area ? a stance backed by civic leaders, for whom lead represents the town’s economic lifeblood, and by the Queensland government, which receives millions of dollars from Xstrata in taxes and royalties annually.

Daphne Hare takes a different view. After Stella’s blood lead level rose to 17mcg/dl, she decided to sue Xstrata. Four other families have joined her, and others may follow. The lawsuit names not only the company, but also the state government and Mount Isa City Council, alleging that they knew years ago about the risks but failed to take steps to protect the community.

Those risks have been widely recognised for decades: young children, in particular, are susceptible to even small amounts of lead, which can cause brain damage and permanently reduce IQ. Largely eliminated from paint and petrol, lead no longer poses a significant danger ? except to people living near industrial plants.

In China, a string of recent lead poisoning cases has sparked public anger. In Australia, decontamination work has been carried out in several towns where lead is mined and smelted. But in Mount Isa, Xstrata does not acknowledge a link between mining operations and children’s health.

As a first-time visitor, it is hard not to be taken aback by the mine’s position, right next to a residential area housing 23,000 people. Only a road and railway line divide the vast site ? with its jumble of pylons, conveyors, crushing plants, pits and slagheaps ? from homes, shops, motels, schools, sports fields and playgrounds. Suburban streets run a few hundred yards from chimneys belching out fumes around the clock. Directly opposite the smelters are a popular swimming pool and skateboard park.

From the air, too, the town ? a scrabble of houses in a parched landscape ? is dominated by three tall stacks thrusting skywards. Mining means everything here, and Mount Isa is a hard-bitten, macho place. It briefly achieved fame last year when the mayor, John Molony, urged “beauty-disadvantaged” women to move to find love in the town and redress its “five blokes for every woman” gender imbalance.

The families’ lawyer, Damian Scattini, scoffs at the notion that the lead entering children’s blood comes from “natural” sources. “It’s ludicrous,” he says, brandishing photographs of dust clouds drifting towards town from the mine site.

Many Mount Isans, who are fiercely protective of their jobs and prosperity, support Xstrata ? which, like the other parties, is defending the legal action. Mayor Molony dismisses the litigant mothers as “just a few women chasing a quid”. Most parents ignored the free blood screening programme, and of the 45 children above 10mcg/dl (a limit many scientists still consider too high), only 13 were brought back for follow-up tests.

Outside one primary school, Louise Armstrong shrugs at the mention of lead. “I didn’t get my kids tested, but I know they’re OK,” she says. “I grew up here and I haven’t got two heads, and neither has anyone else I know.”

But while locals appear to be unconcerned, others have long been trying to ring alarm bells. Ted Prickett, the town’s former chief environmental health officer, noticed deposits of lead around town as far back as 1986. An area was decontaminated; however, the council, fearing that “the matter may get out of hand and cause a panic”, played down the problem.

Mr Prickett left town in 1995, and no further action was taken until 2006, when a senior manager with Queensland’s Environmental Protection Agency, Tim Powe, resigned. Mr Powe, who accused the government of neglecting air quality in Mount Isa, says authorities were “scared to take on the company, because it was one of the largest employers in the state”.

After he went public, there was a flurry of activity, culminating in the blood lead study. But the issue of blame was fudged. The state MP for Mount Isa, Betty Kiernan, declared: “The reality is that lead is literally part of the foundations of our community and we all have a responsibility to ensure we manage our exposure.” John Piispanen, Queensland’s Environmental Health Director, suggested children might be ingesting lead from home-made fishing sinkers.

Such notions infuriate Sharlene Body. Her four-year-old son, Sidney, had the highest reading of all: 31.5mcg/dl. But, having grown up in Mount Isa, she knows that to attack Xstrata is tantamount to treachery. “They say, ‘don’t bite the hand that feeds you.’ But what if that hand is poisoning you too? Should we let our kids get sick just because they’re providing the town with jobs and money?”

Ms Body adds: “We’re supposed to just shut up and deal with it, but I want to get it out there, what Xstrata are doing. I want them to take responsibility, because we are going to have to live with what their irresponsibility has done to our kids.”

Sharlene Seeto moved to Mount Isa in 2007. Her daughter, Bethany, now nearly four, had a blood lead level of 27.2mcg/dl; dust from the air-conditioning unit in her bedroom contained 30 times the maximum safe limit for lead. “She was breathing that in,” says Ms Seeto, incredulous. Bethany has difficulty communicating and is 18 months behind her age group, her mother believes.

Xstrata, which also mines zinc, copper and silver, is Australia’s biggest lead polluter: during 2007-08 its Mount Isa operations emitted 289 tonnes of the stuff. Scientists conclude that heavy metals in local soils come from smelter emissions and the enormous uncapped slagheaps. An eminent American professor of environmental toxicology, Russell Flegal, found higher concentrations of lead in the soils than in notoriously polluted mining towns in China and Romania.

The company defends its environmental record, pointing to its decontamination of the local river and a project to cut emissions. Fumes are carried away by prevailing winds for much of the year, according to Ed Turley, its environmental manager, and the smelters are shut down when necessary.

Mr Turley calls Xstrata’s 15 air quality monitors “the most intensive monitoring system in Australia”. But even within the company, there is disunity. Asked where the lead in children’s blood is coming from, Gordon Teague, head of its Air Quality Control Centre, replies: “Airborne from the [mining] lease.”

A follow-up study of young children is planned for 2012. Damian Scattini, the lawyer, comments: “More monitoring ? what can that do? You can note that another generation has passed with brain damage. It’s like saying we’ll watch the road accident rather than doing something about it.”

Mr Scattini criticises official advice to parents to minimise lead exposure by washing children’s hands regularly. “Suppose this was asbestos and they were saying that really it’s just a matter of using soap and a towel? If it was asbestos that was pouring into houses, what would people say?”

Brenda Oliver spent 18 months in Mount Isa in the 1990s. Her husband, Jeffrey, worked at the mine and Ms Oliver, who was pregnant with their son, Ryan, washed his overalls. Ryan, now 13, has learning difficulties and behavioural problems. She says: “I don’t think I would have had him up there, knowing what I know now, and how hard it’s been to raise him.”

Daphne Hare worries about Stella’s future. “Will she be able to have her own children or hold down a job?” she asks. “These are things we won’t know until she’s older, but there’s not a day goes by when you don’t think about it.”

Sharlene Body says: “The lead’s going to be in Sidney’s system now, and I don’t think he’ll ever get rid of it. People say we’re only doing this for the money. But I would rather he was healthy than all the money in the world.”

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