SPEECH: Lead pollution at Port Pirie

With 2019 being the worst year for lead pollution in a decade, today Mark spoke about the ongoing problem of lead pollution at Port Pirie and the Environment Protection Agency's proposal to modernise Nyrstar's licence conditions, including reducing the amount of lead that Nyrstar is legally allowed to emit into the environment. 


Today, I want to talk about a matter of public health that is not related to COVID-19, and that is the ongoing problem of lead pollution at Port Pirie. Yesterday, in question time I asked the Minister for Health for his reaction to the ABC Background Briefing program aired over the weekend. In his reply he pointed out that lead pollution levels from the Nyrstar smelter might be improving, and I hope he is right, but having followed this issue as both an environmental lawyer and a member of parliament for the last 20 years I have often heard that things are improving in Port Pirie while the statistics can say otherwise. Still, I hope the minister is right.

The year 2019 was the worst year for lead pollution in Port Pirie for a decade. Small children are most at risk, with a well-known correlation between exposure to lead and cognitive development problems. That is why young children in Port Pirie are regularly tested to see whether the concentration of lead in their blood is cause for concern. Sadly, for many anxious parents the figures can be alarming.

When asked by the ABC for his reaction to the increased lead pollution levels from the smelter, the Minister for Energy and Mining, the Hon. Dan van Holst Pellekaan, acknowledged that it was a serious problem. He is quoted by the ABC as saying:

The source is the smelter. The EPA is looking very seriously at reducing the maximum allowable lead in air emitted from the smelter.

Now it seems that things are moving; however, there is a bit more to this than meets the eye. I was pleased to receive in my inbox today a note from the environment minister's adviser enclosing an EPA Port Pirie community update. In this update the EPA explains that it is proposing to modernise Nyrstar's licence conditions, including reducing the amount of lead that Nyrstar is legally allowed to emit into the environment. This is very welcome news, because soon the EPA will be unable to change the maximum allowable lead in air emitted from the smelter unless the company agrees, which in my experience is highly unlikely.

Once the smelter upgrade is complete, we will be facing a situation where the company responsible for the pollution has an effective right of veto over the independent regulator being able to strengthen the pollution licence in relation to lead emissions. This is a unique situation and one that has been brought about, in my opinion, by the incompetence of the previous government, aided and abetted by members of the current government.

Back in 2013, the parliament passed the Port Pirie Smelting Facility (Lead-in-Air Concentrations) Act. This act was part of the deal struck between the smelter operator, Nyrstar, and the then Labor state government. The company said that it would only agree to upgrade the smelter to reduce lead emissions if it received regulatory certainty. What it wanted was a legislated guarantee that the EPA could not change the lead pollution standards in the company's licence for at least 10 years.

This was an appalling piece of legislation. It was a kick in the guts for the EPA and effectively hamstrung their ability to regulate this highly polluting industry. Only the Greens voted against it. The only protection built into the 2013 bill was that the EPA's pollution licence for Nyrstar could be adjusted, even if the company did not like it, provided the licence variation was signed off by the manufacturing minister. The manufacturing minister was defined as the minister for the time being responsible for the Industries Development Act 1941.

This act was repealed three years ago with no savings provisions and no transitional arrangements by virtue of section 65 of the 2017 simplify act. On my interpretation, the repeal of the 1941 act effectively means that Nyrstar will shortly have an effective sole right of veto over any changes to the lead components of its pollution licence for the next 10 years. What a remarkable situation.

I do not think that is what was intended, but if there is no such person as the manufacturing minister any longer, that just leaves the company with the sole right of veto. I have given notice today of my intention to seek to repeal the Port Pirie Smelting Facility (Lead-in-air Concentrations) Act 2013 on the next Wednesday of sitting. Repealing the act would give the EPA the full power to determine appropriate licence conditions ongoing, as they do for every other polluting industry in South Australia. We know the EPA objected to the 2013 act, because then Minister Gago told us so on 11 September 2013.

For now, I would urge the Port Pirie community to get behind the EPA's licence renewal process they have announced today to demand that the lead-in-air standards be tightened. Like all South Australians, I do not want the people of Port Pirie to have to choose between having healthy children and having a job. We all want the smelter upgrade to be successful in reducing ongoing lead pollution.

I hope the Minister for Health and Wellbeing is right and that the emissions are coming down. However, until we repeal the 2013 act, my fear is that once licence conditions are set, they will be locked in for 10 years, with the company responsible for the pollution calling all the shots. I would much prefer to trust the EPA to set appropriate conditions based on the best public health advice available.