Smelter go-slow as lead levels rise
The amount of lead in the air within the industrial South Australian city of Port Pirie is above the acceptable limit, prompting dramatic action by the operator of the city’s lead smelter amid fears its licence will be revoked by environmental regulators.
Belgian metals giant Nyrstar yesterday redirected some of its 700-strong workforce in the Spencer Gulf city, 230km north of Adelaide, away from normal duties to cleaning up its site, which is laden with fine lead dust that is carried into the community by wind.
The Australian reported last month that recent lead-in-air results were at four-year highs and of “significant concern” to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Yesterday’s “Lead In Air Focus Day” saw major parts of the smelter shut down and replaced by “environmental activities”.
The intervention followed an email to staff from the smelter’s general manager, Mark Zaborowski, which confirmed the company was currently exceeding limits set by the EPA.
“We are at risk of breaching our licence to operate this quarter,” Mr Zaborowski wrote.
“The licence limit is 0.5 mg/ dL (micrograms per cubic metre) … we are currently above that to the point where we will need to run at less than 0.25 mg/dL for the remainder of the year.
“Unless we all make a change to the way we operate or to the way we think about fugitive emissions, the potential for us to breach the limit will become a fact.”
Fugitive emissions relate to unintended emissions from plant and equipment.
At the end of each quarter, a rolling 12-month average of lead-in-air levels must fall under 0.5mg/dL at two compliance sites.
The June readings of 0.43 micrograms and 0.42 were the highest since 2014.
While the September results have not been officially released, EPA science and information director Keith Baldry told The Australian they had increased but remained marginally below the limit.
Mr Baldry said elevated levels in the early part of this quarter meant Nyrstar was operating above the limit, hence the company’s clean-up efforts.
“We’re really pleased to see this proactive work being done … it’s not something that we have specifically required Nyrstar to do,” he said.
Childhood exposure to lead has been linked to lower IQ and academic achievement, and a range of socio-behavioural problems.
In a statement, Nyrstar said current levels were a result of its old plant and new plant running concurrently, a situation that is expected to continue until the end of next year.
“Nyrstar has a range of plans and actions in place that have been addressing the emissions and the environmental impacts on the Port Pirie community,” a spokeswoman said.
The clean-up comes a day after the Australian Workers Union said 100 jobs — 40 fulltime and 60 contract — were set to be axed from Nyrstar’s Port Pirie operations.
“The union is considering all options, including a visit to the Fair Work Commission,” AWU South Australia branch secretary Peter Lamps said.
Nyrstar has not confirmed any job losses.