Saturday, November 20, 2010

Esperance, Wagerup and the forgotten history of Western Australian sacrifice zones

The story of the Esperance lead pollution scandal has been consigned to the "dustbin" of Western Australian history. Hopefully, new research by the Conservation Council of WA might focus attention on the contamination of the town by a mining company and its state government partners.

Over 2 years (2005- 2007) Magellan Metals and the Esperance Port Authority allowed lethal lead dust to escape from storage facilities and contaminate the town of Esperance and surrounds. Over 9500 birds died of lead poisoning and hundreds of children suffered lead poisoning from elevated lead levels.

A Western Australian Parliamentary Inquiry found that the Esperance Port Authority and Magellan Metals (and 2 other government agencies) were guilty of "critical failings" in their handling of toxic material in allowing lead carbonate particles to escape during Port operation.

The Inquiry concluded that the deaths of 9500 native birds in December 2006 and March 2007 resulted from lead poisoning from Magellan Metals lead carbonate concentrate which had been handled by the Esperance Port Authority from April 2005 until March 2007. A quarter of the children under 5 years of age who were tested showed a blood lead level over 5 µg/dL. The Committee concluded that the exposure of the Esperance community to lead was a result of:
  • the ongoing transport to, and inloading practices at, the Esperance Port which occurred almost every second day over some 23 months;
  • the escape of lead dust during the usual out loading practices at the Esperance Port, which occurred on 22 occasions; and
  • a number of key dust incidents occurring during ship-loading of the Magellan lead concentrate at the Esperance Port, which released significant lead pollution into the environment, and in the absence of any containment or clean up, caused on-going exposures to lead.”
The Report found that the Esperance community had been let down by the actions of the Esperance Port Authority, Magellan Metals and the WA Department of Environment (DEC).

The Esperance Port Authority was fined over half a million dollars after admitting responsibility for the lead poisoning. Magellan Metals escaped without any serious penalty after agreeing to a $9 million settlement to clean up the town. As part of the agreement the State Government agreed not to pursue any criminal or legal charges against the company.

The scandal is back in the news this week as a result of resarch by the Conservation Council of WA. The Council reports that even though the lead pollution problem scandal was supposedly fixed, local research shows that local insect eating birds have lead levels in their feathers about 8 times background lead levels. The birds are at threshold level for lead pollution in birds.

These levels raise serious questions about the effectiveness of the cleanup. A State Government report released earlier this year claimed that three years after the crises the poisonous lead dust still present in the town  remained a major threat to bird life and animal life but presented no "serious threat to human health"  

But why should we believe a report commissioned by a State Government agency that has utterly failed in its job to regulate mining companies and their Government partners and has failed time and time again protect the community. During the Esperance crises, Government agencies, including the Health Department, continually downplayed the seriousness of the problem and denied any serious risk to human health.

Like many other places in WA, Esperance is what US author Steve Lerner calls a "Sacrifice Zone"- communities forced to live with the harmful social and environmental impacts of poorly regulated mining and industrial activity. 

Martin Bruckner's remarkable book Under Corporate Skies tells the shocking story of another Western Australian "Sacrifice Zone"- this time the struggle between the community of Wagerup and the multinational mining corporation Alcoa and its ally over three decades- the WA Government. Brueckner tells a story also consigned to the dustbin of Western Australian history. His book describes the the same pattern of denial, protection of mining and industrial interests, collusion by State Government agencies and  dismissal and trivialization of community concerns that has been evident in the Esperance scandal.

These "sacrifice zones" exist all over WA, in towns and communities where mining and industrial activity are dominant.  These are places and people sacrificed on the alter of corporate profit and economic growth. 

The harms caused by poorly regulated mining and industrial activity- ill health and death, scarred land, polluted, air and water, despoiled environment and human landscape and a fraying social fabric- are trivialized, and denied, and if proven, they are simply dismissed as a cost of economic prosperity or considered not serious enough to warrant attention. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I expected to find pages of comments. We left mandurah for kalbarri and had a massive improvement in our kids health. Its sad when you go to the doctors there and see elevated levels of asthma in children and adults yet all is perfect. Corporate skies for me was evidence that our entire southwest and perth itself is a sacrifice zone.
Born and bred here, love it, but hate to see these crimes against humanity taking place. History will show the truth ,
In the mean time we stay here