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.

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