Port Pirie’s pollution problem.

Australian agriculture is facing another problem with a contaminated exports, 10 years after the beef industry faced a crisis over meat exports contaminated with a pesticide used on cotton.

This time around it is the production and exporting of wheat and barley from South Australia contaminated with higher than acceptable levels of lead and cadmium.

The contaminated grain is coming from South Australia, specifically from an area around the huge, 100 year old Port Pirie lead smelter at the head of the Spencer Gulf, and in the mist of some of the most productive grain growing areas of the state.

Not all grain shipped from South Australia is contaminated, just those cargoes where the grains from around Port Pirie are being blended with other grains to produce shipments with lead and cadmium levels under accepted international standards.

The contaminated grain, which has higher than internationally accepted levels of lead and cadmium, is being blended into grain with lower levels of lead, and especially cadmium (which is prevalent in a lot of Australian crops given the use of chemical-based fertilizers).

The blended grain is being sent overseas to markets such as Japan, which is notoriously sensitive to polluted or contaminated food.

It gives Australia’s multi-billion dollar a year export grain industry potential problems in the valuable Japanese market.

A report commissioned by a Federal Government grain industry research group, the GRDC, has found seriously high levels of lead and cadmium pollution in land around the Port Pirie Smelter of Zinifex, formerly Pasminco.

Much of this ground is used for growing wheat and barley. The area concerned is in a 15 kilometre radius around the smelter.

The contamination of this land is known. See what the Primary Industry and Resources Department of South Australia said in 2002 here.

Port Pirie grain quality

PIRSA (Primary Industry and Resources South Australia) is part of a joint industry and government committee ensuring heavy metal standards for cereals continue to be met in risk areas following the lowering of international and domestic maximum limits for lead in cereals. A survey of cereals conducted around Port Pirie found some high individual levels of lead in barley and cadmium in wheat. Industry is confident that monitoring and stack management of bulked grain will ensure trade and domestic standards continue to be met.

“The key phrase in this is monitoring and stack management of bulked grain. This means the blending of grain with higher lead and cadmium levels with cleaner grain to produce a desired standard.

It indicates official knowledge of the process. But the monitoring is showing problems. There is also NO indication of any end use monitoring within the Australian or export markets.

Despite the blending, it is clear that a portion of each cargo is contaminated. The cleaner grain merely dilutes the level of lead and cadmium, it does not remove it. There has been no full disclosure to buyers of this grain.

Japan is an important market for wheat and especially barley from South Australia.

However one recent shipment is known to have caused alarms when the first test in Australia revealed lead and cadmium levels in the grain above the accepted level. But a further five tests on the cargo found lead and cadmium levels just below the acceptable international limits, and the concern eased.

But we also don’t know where grain from this area that is blended is sent in the Australian domestic market. Is it used in the human food industry, or is it sent to the feed lot industry?

Not all when and barley from South Australia is blended, just enough to take account of the grains produced around Port Pirie.

The exporters have known about the high levels of lead and cadmium in wheat and barley ground around Port Pirie.

To lower these levels they routinely blend the contaminated grains with clean grains grown elsewhere in the state, continuously monitoring the lead and cadmium levels until they are below the levels in markets like Japan and can be imported without too many problems

The study of the land around Port Pirie was commissioned by the GRDC and carried out by the CSIRO and was completed last month.

The GRDC collects more than a $60 million a year from the various grains industry, mainly wheat, and barley and then directs this (with matching dollar for dollar grants from the Federal Government) towards research, market information and other spending designed to improved returns for growers.

GRDC is one of a number Research and Development Corporations that invest an estimated $800 million a year from levies from various rural and other primary industries.

The listed grain companies, AWB and ABB have been informed of the findings, as have Zinifex and the South Australian Farmers federation.

Lead and cadmium levels in the soil have risen as a result of fallout from the stacks at the smelter down the years. It has been at Port Pirie for more than 100 years and treated ores from Broken Hill and then other mines in Australia. It is the largest lead smelter in the world.

The company has been working to cut pollution levels in recent years, especially lead and sulphur dioxide.

But because of the years of high pollutant levels in the discharges from the stack, lead and cadmium levels in particular are high in the area surveyed by the CSIRO group. The area is 30 kilometres across and prices for grain growing land around Port Pirie have risen sharply in the past five or so years from around $600-$700 a hectare to around $2,200.

It was this rising concern about the level of lead and cadmium contamination around Port Pirie that caused grain farmers to ask the GRDC for a study to be commissioned.

CSIRO searchers have been conducting the study for the last couple of years and the report was finalized around the middle of this year.

Lead and cadmium pollution into Spencer Gulf from the Port Pirie Smelter is well known and has affected shellfish in the area.

Here’s a recent ABC story with some background on lead pollution problems at Port Pirie.

The practice of blending high lead and cadmium grains with clean grains recalls the practice discovered in 1994 of feeding cattle with cotton waste that was contaminated with the Helix pesticide that eventually raised pesticide levels in beef exports to Japan that failed import inspections.

Australia beef exports in drought feed peril – government

Some rural groups claimed that it was acceptable to do this because it had gone on for a long time, while others said the tests to check on the levels of Helix contamination in the beef were not good enough.