Taxpayers kick in for new bid to cut Port Pirie lead pollution

The state government is giving $7m towards a $23m facility at Nyrstar’s Port Pirie smelter aimed at cutting lead pollution amid ongoing concerns about worryingly high blood lead levels among children.

Nov 12, 2021, updated Nov 12, 2021
Nyrstar's lead smelter in Port Pirie. Photo: AAP/David Mariuz

Nyrstar's lead smelter in Port Pirie. Photo: AAP/David Mariuz

Nyrstar and the state government claim that the new facility will cut the amount of lead in the air by up to 25 per cent.

Lead exposure in children is linked to slower intellectual development and behavioural disorders. In February this year, SA Health said lead levels in the blood of Port Pirie two year olds had reached a 10-year high of 7.3 micrograms per decilitre of blood.

National health guidelines say levels above five micrograms per decilitre should be investigated, while others say there is no safe level.

The EPA also reported that Port Pirie’s lead in air levels had increased in 2020 compared with 2019 – a breach of its new smelter licence agreement which lowered the plant’s annual average allowable emissions by 20 per cent.

Nystar said today that construction of the 6850 square metre product recycling facility would begin early next year.

Currently, smelter materials are stored and processed in an open-air environment. The company said the new facility to enclose the area would be  negatively pressured to contain fine dust particles and reduce the risk of escape into the air.

Nyrstar vice president of Australian operations Dale Webb said the new facility was expected to reduce lead air concentrations in Port Pirie by up to 25 per cent compared to monitoring levels recorded in December 2020.

“Our process for storing, mixing and transporting minerals around the site will be improved fundamentally and will work together with other improvements already in place to deliver a sustained reduction in lead in air in our local community,” he said.

“The investment that Nyrstar Australia is making will act to improve both the environmental and operational performance of our Port Pirie plant, and we welcome the State Government’s support for this important project.

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“Nyrstar Australia and its many talented people working in Port Pirie will continue to focus on how we can continue to improve our operations to reduce lead in air concentrations and complement the Targeted Lead Abatement Program (TLAP) and actions of the State Government, Port Pirie Regional Council and people of Port Pirie to reduce lead levels within the local community.”

Premier Steven Marshall said he was “incredibly proud that Nyrstar and my Government have joined forces to take action to deal decisively with lead emissions and improve the health of the children of Port Pirie” .

“This outstanding initiative will create 75 jobs at the peak of construction and sustain hundreds of jobs over the life of the project, delivering a significant economic boost for Port Pirie’s economy””

Last month Nystar and the state government agreed to extend the lead abatement program to 2034.

The Government also announced a $2.5 million program to upgrade 43 Port Pirie Housing SA properties, with works including sealing the homes and “improving outdoor areas to remove legacy lead”.

“The recycling facility is another significant investment by the Marshall Government and Nyrstar to effect real change to reduce lead in blood levels of children in Port Pirie,” mining and energy minister Dan Van Holst Pellekaan said today.

“Despite the previous Labor Government promising that lead issues would be a ‘thing of the past’, it’s clear their efforts were not effective.

“Reducing lead in air requires a comprehensive approach that involves Nyrstar, the local council and the community working with the State Government to deliver a multi-pronged solution.”

Two years ago in November 2019, the Marshall Government said it had secured the agreement of Trafigura Group, the new majority shareholder of Nystar, to repay the remaining $262m of a $291m loan underwritten by the then-Weatherill Labor Government as part of a $600 smelter upgrade.

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