Australia State of the Environment Report 2001 (Theme Report)
Lead Author: Dr Peter Manins, Environmental Consulting and Research Unit, CSIRO Atmospheric Research, Authors
Published by CSIRO on behalf of the Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001
ISBN 0 643 06746 9
Regional Air Quality (continued)
Lead across regional airsheds [A Indicator 4.3]
Airborne particles can be absorbed into the blood stream through the lungs by inhalation, or by ingestion of produce contaminated by deposition of lead to the surface. Lead affects the nervous system and the body's ability to produce blood (Table 4). Young children are particularly susceptible.
Major sources of lead in air in regional Australia include lead production, smelting of copper and other elements and power production from coal combustion and petroleum processing. Major regional centres with substantial lead emissions have been compared with the Port Phillip Region (Melbourne) (Table 31) (see Lead in urban centres).
|Location||Pb emissions (t/y)||Major source types|
|Mount Isa (Qld)||552||Copper, lead smelter|
|Charters Towers (Qld)||6||Copper production|
|Kalgoorlie (WA)||1.5A||Nickel and gold processing|
|Cockle Creek (NSW)||14||Lead and zinc smelting|
|Port Kembla (NSW)||14||Steel works|
|Port Pirie (SA)||28||94% lead and zinc smelting|
|Latrobe Valley (Vic.)||2||Coal combustion for power|
|Port Phillip Region (Vic.)||192||95% vehicles|
A Annualised DEP (1999) NPI Trial for Kalgoorlie.
Source: NPI (2001) except where indicated.
Although emissions of lead from a major city such as Melbourne are large compared with all regional centres except Mount Isa, they are decreasing rapidly as the national leaded petrol phase-out date of 1 January 2002 approaches (see Lead in urban areas). In Mount Isa, the copper smelter alone accounts for 70% of lead emissions. Yet, ambient lead in air concentrations in the town are well below the Air NEPM Standard (Figure 137). This is a reflection of success with the operation of the Mount Isa Mine's emissions control strategy (used principally to manage sulfur dioxide concentrations).
Figure 137: Measured 90-day average lead concentrations in air at Mount Isa.
Mount Isa Mines must meet the Queensland Environmental Protection Policy (Air) value of 1.5 g/m3, which is the same as the NHMRC (1986) guideline value; the Air NEPM Standard of 0.5 g/m3 (annual average) is shown for comparison.
Source: from MIM (1999) plus Air NEPM level for airborne lead
With the phase-out of lead additives in petrol by 1 January 2002 in Australia (already the case in Western Australia from 1 January 2000, and in Queensland from 1 March 2001), the major exposure source for the population will effectively cease. Exposure to lead in wind-blown dust will continue to be an issue in some locations, both urban and regional.
A few industrial sources account for the only regions of significant concern and these are active in their efforts to mitigate effects, as judged by their expressed commitment to the Code for Environmental Management (AMI 2000). Substantial effort is still required in these locations before it can be said that all of Australia complies with the Air NEPM for lead.
Port Pirie, on Spencer Gulf, and Cockle Creek, south of Newcastle, have been sites of substantial lead and zinc processing for over 100 years. Pasminco's Port Pirie plant is the largest lead smelter in the world. Historic lead contamination of soil surrounding the sites in both areas, and current emissions, have given rise to significant community concerns, centred on the blood lead levels of children in nearby residential areas.
Both Port Pirie (Figure 138) and Cockle Creek (Figure 139) have an ongoing issue with lead in air. By comparison with the Air NEPM, atmospheric lead concentrations are unacceptable.
Figure 138: Measured lead concentrations in air at Port Pirie.
The Air NEPM Standard of 0.5 g/m3(annual average) is shown for comparison.
Source: Pasminco (2000a) with addition of Air NEPM level for airborne lead
Figure 139: Measured lead concentrations in air at Cockle Creek.
The site is licensed by a NSW Government Condition of Consent up to a value of
1.0 g/m3. The Air NEPM Standard of 0.5 g/m3> (annual average) is shown for comparison.
Source: Pasminco (2000a) with addition of Air NEPM level for airborne lead
Some success in identifying the sources of airborne lead in Port Pirie has been reported (Gilbert et al. 1996; Van Alpen 1999). Previous suggestions that remobilisation of historical fugitive dust in the region by wind is responsible for recontamination of house blocks in Port Pirie, are not supported by the evidence. Ratios of emissions and concentrations for sulfur dioxide (using Table 30, Figure 128 and Table 31) reveal that emissions from the main stack at Pirie contribute only a small fraction of the observed levels shown in the Figure 138. Van Alpen (1999) demonstrated that the principal current sources of lead in Port Pirie are mobilisation of materials and fugitive dusts from the plant site. The same may be true in Cockle Creek.
Pasminco is undertaking improvements to reduce site-related emissions, in accord with the Australian Minerals Industry Code for Environmental Management (AMI 2000; AMEEF 2000), and is publicising these activities through its environmental performance reports (e.g. Pasminco 1999). Nevertheless, much needs to be done and the company may need to control materials dust rather than apply further controls to stack emissions.
As the health effect of lead is the result of both current emissions and historical lead deposition, people may remain at risk regardless of company measures to mitigate emissions.
In December 2000, the Victorian Supreme Court dismissed a class action relating to the alleged damage caused by the long-term effects of lead emissions from Pasminco's lead and zinc smelters at Cockle Creek and Port Pirie.
Port Kembla is 95 km south of Sydney, on a narrow strip bounded by the sea to the east and mountains to the west. In 1908, a copper smelter was built and residential areas grew up within metres of the boundary. The resulting chronic pollution was a factor in establishing the Clean Air Act of New South Wales in 1961. In 1966, the old smelter was upgraded with the addition of a 200 m concrete chimney. With no reduction in emissions, the pollution was merely dispersed over a wider area.
Around 1990, CRA became a major shareholder and the ERS Company became Southern Copper Ltd. Another extensive upgrade was initiated, but in 1991, the upgrade malfunctioned, causing fires and explosions. Air pollution and acidic fallout worsened dramatically. Without accepting liability, the company paid out $7 million in compensation for repairs of rooftops, pathways, motor vehicles and clothing. In February 1995 in the midst of repairs, the copper smelter closed, stating that it was unable to comply with the licence conditions set by the EPA. The lead pollution ceased (see Figure 140).
Figure 140: The 90-day average lead in air concentrations measured at Port Kembla, near the copper smelter.
Source: After EPAN (1997) Figure 1.32
One year later and without informing the residents, the government moved to allow the smelter to be upgraded and reopened by new Japanese owners. However, local residents initiated a challenge, supported by Legal Aid funds. On 28 May 1997, the night before the case was due to commence in the Land and Environment Court and after six months of preparations, the government introduced special legislation to halt the case.
In preparing for the case, lawyers subpoenaed confidential official documents showing that the health and environmental problems caused by the smelter's reopening would far exceed the government's claims. Sulfur dioxide concentrations would be double the government's assurances, and lead levels would be four to six times higher. One document revealed that the copper smelter had frequently exceeded World Health Organization guideline levels for sulfur dioxide: 4000 times in one year. Halting the case had the legal effect of prohibiting the release of these documents (WSWS 1998).
A Freedom of Information case was brought by a local resident to make the documents public. A District Court judge eventually ruled that five of the Premier's Department guidelines being used to justify their actions were invalid, that the documents should be released, and that the central case should be heard (Hamilton 1999).
Although that case was eventually lost, the community had the victory of an open process and the upholding of Freedom of Information legislation. The Japanese consortium led by Furukawa C. Ltd has since spent about $250 million to double the smelter's original capacity to 120 000 t/year, install a new sulfuric acid plant to support the existing one, and to greatly improve the environmental performance.
Port Kembla Copper was commissioned in 2000. The company is required by EPA NSW to operate 10 ambient sulfur dioxide monitoring stations and four lead monitors. The company has reported some monitoring data for this period (see http://www.pkc.com.au for details).