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.
(Page 2 of 2)
While his resignation led to the blood lead study, the source of the lead remains a controversy. Betty Kiernan, the local state representative, declared: “The reality is that lead is literally part of the foundations of our community.” John Piispanen, Queensland’s environmental health director, suggested that children might be ingesting lead from homemade fishing sinkers.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
‘Don’t bite the hand that feeds you’
In other lead-reliant towns, such as Port Pirie in South Australia, the highlighting of health problems has divided residents. A similar schism has split Mount Isa, where many people – fiercely protective of their jobs – condemn those taking legal action. One mother, Louise Armstrong, says: “I didn’t get my kids tested, but I know they’re OK. I grew up here, and I haven’t got two heads.”
The litigants include Sharlene Body, whose four-year-old son, Sidney, had the highest blood lead reading of all, 31.5 mcg/dl. Mount Isa born and bred, Ms. Body observes: “They say, ‘Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.’ But what if that hand is poisoning you too?”
Sharnelle Seeto moved to Mount Isa in 2007. Her daughter, Bethany, recorded a sharply elevated blood lead reading; dust from the air-conditioning unit in her bedroom was found to contain 30 times the maximum safe limit set by the WHO for lead. “She was breathing that in,” says Ms. Seeto, incredulous.
Among those supporting the families is an eminent American professor of environmental toxicology, Russell Flegal. He has found higher concentrations of lead in Mount Isa’s soils than in notoriously polluted mining towns in China and Romania.
Xstrata defends its environmental record, calling its 15 air quality monitors around Mount Isa “the most intensive monitoring system in Australia.” The company’s environmental manager, Ed Turley, says fumes from the mine’s smokestacks are carried away by prevailing winds for much of the year, and at other times the smelters are shut down, to protect public health – which can happen during periods totaling about one tenth of the year.
But the families’ lawyer, Damian Scattini, brandishes photographs of dust clouds blowing from the mine site toward the town. Scattini is critical of official advice to minimize children’s lead exposure by washing their hands regularly. “If it was asbestos that was pouring into houses, what would people say?” he asks.