Australian town confronts hidden costs of mining boom
The Australian mining boom has put food on the table for many communities like Mount Isa. But residents there are now suing the local mine’s owner and the government after tests showed their children had high levels of lead in their blood.
Mount Isa, Australia
Daphne Hare moved to a small Queensland mining community, Mount Isa, in 2002, hoping for a share of the town’s prosperity. She found a job in a busy hotel, made friends, and settled down. But her infant daughter, Stella, frequently fell ill.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
In 2008, after concerns were raised about the nearby lead mine, health officials offered a free blood-screening program for under-fives. Ms. Hare was horrified to discover that Stella had a blood lead reading well above World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. And she was not alone: more than 1 in 10 children had potentially unsafe levels of the heavy metal in their systems.
Now Mount Isa is grappling with a dilemma facing many Australian communities: how to weigh the economic benefits of mining against possible adverse health effects. One of the world’s leading minerals exporters, the country is enjoying a prolonged mining boom that has underpinned the national economy. But some locals, subjected to lead, mercury, and other toxic emissions, believe they may be paying the price.
In Mount Isa, a mine and smelter that are Australia’s largest emitters of lead are situated next to a population of 23,000. The mine’s owner, the Anglo-Swiss giant Xstrata, suggests that exposed outcrops of naturally mineralized bedrock – rather than its operations – are the problem. That stance is backed by the Queensland government.
Hare was “in shock” following Stella’s blood test. “I would wake up crying in the night,” she says. The little girl’s reading then rose. Hare quit Mount Isa, but not before announcing plans to sue. Four other families have since joined her.
Extending blame to the government
The lawsuit names not only Xstrata, but also the city council and state government. The families’ lawyers allege that authorities knew about the risks for years but failed to protect the community.
Those risks – particularly to young children, in whom lead exposure can cause brain damage – have long been recognized. As a result, lead has been eliminated from paint and gasoline, at least in developed countries. But global demand for the metal, now used largely in lead-acid car batteries, remains high.
In Australia, major decontamination efforts have been undertaken in several of the half-dozen communities where lead is mined and smelted. That has yet to happen in Mount Isa, although alarm bells were rung by environmental health officers as far back as the 1980s. The council played down the dangers, according to internal documents seen by the Monitor, because it feared “the matter may … cause a panic.”
The current scare was triggered by Tim Powe, a senior manager with Queensland’s Environmental Protection Agency, who resigned after accusing the state government of neglecting public health. Special legislation exempts the Mount Isa mine from federal and state emissions limits, and Mr. Powe believes authorities were “scared to take on the company because it was one of the largest employers in the state.”