Shareholders in that $10 billion bolter Zinifex today overwhelmingly approved the sale of its controversial liability-laden lead and zinc smelters to a Belgian-based company. This means that the responsibility for the world’s biggest lead smelter, in the South Australian town of Port Pirie, is moving offshore.

Port Pirie has long copped a bad rap from the Advertiser given that lead dust poisoning is widespread in the community. Zinifex is currently spending $56 million to try and get lead dust emissions down to World Health Organisation maximums by 2010.

Unions, environmental groups, regulators, residents, community leaders and governments of all persuasions currently have a $10 billion Australian-listed company to talk to about the long term clean up of Port Pirie, which is undoubtedly the biggest single environmental liability sitting on the books of any Australian listed company.

Whilst it’s totally unfair to say Zinifex is “doing a James Hardie” — the facts of the matter are that an Australian listed company is embarking on a major restructure that will cut the apron strings to Australia and leave stakeholders to deal with a Belgian-based company listed on the Euronext Stock Exchange.

As I took shareholders through these issues at this morning’s EGM, one retail punter interjected “Where’s Glenn Milne?” as if to say, “we’re all making out like bandits and don’t want to hear these issues”.

“Who’s that?” chairman Peter Mansell, the father of newly recruited AFR companies reporter Ingird Mansell, said in response.

It certainly is puzzling that Zinifex shareholders will not get a look in with the smelter business sale which is being done by forming a joint venture with the smelters currently run by Belgian company Umicore.

Zinifex is planning to flog its entire 60% shareholding as quickly as possible through this Euronext float of a business called Nyrstar, but it certainly looks like they are trying to minimise any future association with Australia.

Not only are Zinifex shareholders not going to get an entitlement, they will be given no priority allocation and Mansell said he didn’t even plan to send us a copy of the Nyrstar prospectus.

The whole argument behind this approach is that European investors better understand and value smelting businesses.

Given that global mining services businesses like Dyno Nobel and Boart Longyear have been transplanted from offshore to Australia because our $1 trillion superannuation pile delivers world’s best earnings multiples, you can only conclude that Australian investors are paranoid about the huge liabilities sitting inside the smelters.

Will the Belgians put a lower value on the liabilities because they won’t be as generous as Australian-based Zinifex would have been? The various regulators and stakeholders should take a close interest in the disclosures revealed in the forthcoming Nyrstar prospectus.

The South Australian government will no doubt be well aware of the appalling tactics of Exxon-Mobil, the world’s most profitable company, in closing its South Australian oil refinery at Point Stanvac, without cleaning it up straight away.

Zinifex is to be commended for its more enlightened approach to stakeholder and environmental issues than was shown by the old Pasminco before it collapsed in 2001. The big question is whether the Belgians will keep it up?