Jul 10, 2009

Is Rosebery a health hazard?

Two women are claiming they have developed serious health issues from exposure to the run-off from an open cut mine in their town, and are demanding the Tasmanian government relocate them.

In November last year, two women from the mining town of Rosebery in the hills of western Tasmania hit local media headlines with a call for an investigation into the presence of heavy metals in the water around their homes. They got their investigation, but now they have rejected the findings of a Tasmanian Department of Health and Human Services toxicology investigation into the presence of heavy metals in their town and health problems experienced by locals, saying the DHHS failed to conduct adequate testing of humans and ground water in their research. Marsha Stejskal and Kay Seltitzas claim their serious health issues, including nerve and liver damage, are a direct result of exposure to run off from the Minerals and Metals Group open cut mine 400 metres up the road from their homes. MMG mines zinc, copper, lead and gold in Rosebery. Stejskal appeared on ABC TV’s Stateline, pointing to a bubbling grey and brown pool of water by her door that she said contained dangerously high levels of heavy metals. The Tasmanian government investigation was headed by independent toxicologist Dr Brian Priestly of Monash University. His findings, released in February, did not support the women’s claims. Last weekend Stejskal and Seltitzas traveled to Hobart to demand the Tasmanian state government relocate them, saying that it was damaging for them to remain in Rosebery and, knowing the health risks associated with living there, they could not ethically sell or rent their properties to other people. Stejskal, who is 23 and on a disability pension, told the Hobart Mercury she couldn’t afford to move on her own. "We’re economic prisoners," she said. While the DHHS report acknowledges the presence of heavy metals, it concludes that the levels of toxicity are not high enough to cause the health problems experienced by Rosebery locals. On Monday, a group of eight Rosebery residents submitted a request to the Director Public Health at the Department of Health and Human services, Dr Roscoe Taylor, asking for Priestly’s investigation to be quashed. They listed the following failures on behalf of the DHHS:
  • The failure of the scope of the investigation to determine the need for an assessment of any known: past seepage, soil contamination and incidence of heavy metal poisoning of neighbouring residents.
  • The failure to establish results of independent medical examinations for correlation with blood and urine tests and toxicological relevance.
  • The failure of blood and urine testing to be conducted within the specified time frame required to establish the true nature of the residents exposure.
  • The failure to conduct geohydrological testing and to unequivocally establish the source of the seepage and heavy metal contamination.
  • The failure to conduct any veterinary testing on animals that died during the investigation.
  • The failure to conduct roof, wall and under-floor cavity testing.
Director of the National Toxins Network, Lee Bell, told Crikey the completion of these types of tests when investigating the presence of heavy metals in any environment was standard practice in Australia and the requests of the residents was not unreasonable. Bell said it was highly unusual that Dr Priestly did not do these tests. "The final recommendation of the investigation, not to do any further testing, is certainly out of the ordinary. It clearly relates to legal liability of the mine and the state government at the expense of people’s health in Rosebery." Bell says the following types of testing should have been done in Rosebery:
  • Soil sampling for heavy metals in a grid across all suspected contaminated areas at intervals that provide confidence in the lateral and vertical characterisation of the impacted zone.
  • Hydrogeological assessment of the site including the sinking of bores to assess groundwater quality and characterise the source of any contaminated groundwater plumes that may be present and their relationship to the mine, the tailings dams or spoil heaps.
  • Assessment of any surface water bodies (creeks etc) in close proximity to the affected residents for heavy metal contamination and acidification.
  • Assessment of the scope and severity of acid mine drainage from the open cut mine.
  • Assessment of air quality over a representative time period 3-6 months to assess the contribution of heavy metal laden dust from open cut operations on Rosebery under a variety of climatic conditions and different wind directions.
  • Isotopic fingerprinting of lead from the mine, the houses in Rosebery and the lead in residents blood to determine whether the chemical fingerprint of the lead from the mine is the same as in the houses and peoples bodies.
Testing for the presence of heavy metals and their effect on residents is not unusual in Australia. In 2007, residents of the West Australian town of Esperance were poisoned by lead carbonate dust being transported from a mine in Wiluna to the Port of Esperance for bulk loading. Unlike Rosebery, in Esperance ground water was not an issue, but soil, marine sediment and air testing was undertaken by the West Australian government as well as isotopic fingerprinting linking the lead found in humans to that of the Wiluna mine. When MMG conducted their own report in September 2008 they concluded that the heavy metals present in the home environment of Rosebery locals was naturally occurring, not connected to their health issues and certainly not connected to the mine. MMG spokesperson Sally Cox said in a media release last year:
The results show evidence of some naturally occurring metals, often consistent with highly mineralised regions such as Tasmania’s West Coast. The report states that the water issue is a combination of water that is flowing onto the properties from an adjacent council roadway and kerb and some close to surface ground water. The water is not the result of mining operations in the area.
The report conducted by MMG is not publicly available and was not provided to Crikey upon request. Tasmania's Acting Director of Public Health, Dr Chrissie Pickin, told Crikey the Department stood by the findings of the Priestly investigation, but encouraged the Rosebery residents concerned to launch an Ombudsman inquiry. She said:
During his investigation Professor Priestly visited the residents and listened to their concerns. Soil, water and air testing was also carried out, as were numerous blood and urine tests. Professor Priestly found that the evidence gathered during the investigation did not support the belief that the residents’ health problems were related to exposure to heavy metals in the environment. The Project Team’s final report similarly concluded that the evidence gathered did not indicate any significant health risk to the residents or to the Rosebery community in general.
Whistleblowers Tasmania spokesman, Isla MacGregor, is critical of the state government’s response to Rosebery residents. "The way that the whole investigation has been deliberately restricted in its scope, is typical of Government tactics when they need to produce a suitable outcome as litigation deterrence and fiscal damage control" she told the Tasmanian Times.

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9 thoughts on “Is Rosebery a health hazard?

  1. Mark Duffett

    Rosebery is not an open cut, it’s an underground mine.

  2. Eleri Harris

    The Rosebery mine is mostly underground, but I have been told there is a relatively recent (2002?) open cut section directly north of the homes on Murchison street Stejskal and Seltitzas say are affected. It is visible on Google maps if you want to have a look.

  3. Ian Sale

    This sounds like a June Bug event – see http://www.springerlink.com/content/v5u85k6jv858581r/ for an account of hysterical contagion.

  4. amanda rainey

    From the report:

    “As things transpired, because the residents withdrew permission for any indoor sampling to be undertaken by the EPA, only sub-floor air sampling for two houses actually occurred.”

    From the residents:

    “They listed the following failures on behalf of the DHHS:…

    The failure to conduct roof, wall and under-floor cavity testing.”

    I don’t think you can have it both ways…

  5. Frank Campbell

    As a boy growing up in Rosebery I played in “Lake Bull”. This was a semi-liquid tailings dump where grey sandy mine muck accumulated over decades. It formed a kind of quicksand, and more than once kids had to rescue each other with ropes or sticks as they sank. The Rosebery mine extracts silver, lead and zinc, and dates from the 1890s. Last time I looked (1992) Lake Bull was still there.

    Rosebery was and possibly still is a dangerous and brutal environment. We had the run of the mine. Nothing could keep us out and no one tried. An overhead cableway from the Hercules mine at Williamstown ran over the town. At a certain point we could climb into the buckets and steal ore. If the damned thing started again we would have trundled off to the crusher. We were fascinated by ores, especially the crystalline ones such as Galena, which was mostly lead. These heavy lead ores were ideal for rock fights, which were conducted like trench warfare. Injuries were common. We also commandeered railway ore trucks inside the mine. One boy lost his thumb when he couldn’t escape from the ropes tying him to the track quick enough. This “game” was derived from the Superman serials at the local cinema. Original we were not.

    Exposure to heavy metals was inevitable. We knew nothing about pollution. The entire place is impregnated with heavy metals. Mining in those days was entirely underground, but as I said above, it was standard practice to pump mine waste out and dump it above ground, where it polluted the Stitt River. Remember that Rosebery is one of the wettest places in Australia. Some time in the 80s (I think) , mining by chemicals began. This entails pumping liquid solvents into mines to separate metals from ores. Where did/does this waste go?

    You won’t read anything about all this in Geoffrey Blainey’s “Peaks of Lyell” (1954), his first book, which launched his career as a paid corporate historian.

    The residents of Rosebery today are living on a heavy metal waste site. The brutal macho days of mining may (or may not) be over, but the legacy lives on. Rosebery is a place few Australians have heard of. Tasmanians regard it as primitive, god-forsaken and best not mentioned in polite company. You can be sure that government has never conducted a single study into the health of miners or residents. Many are now dispersed as employment at the mines shrank due to technological innovation. Is there any interest in a health study of the West Coast mining towns? Or an audit of current mining practices? Or is the West Coast still dispensable, beyond the pale of civilisation?

  6. Frank Campbell

    The Rosebery mines are about the oldest on the west coast, continuously mined, and you can see aerial photos of the current “Lake Bull”, which now has water in it to reduce acids. Discharge is into the Stitt river, which was 40m from our house and in which we swam in summer.

    From Tas. Govt report, 2003: the general situation in Tas.

    “Waste rocks and tailings materials at many of the abandoned mine sites also commonly contain unusually high concentrations of trace metals (arsenic, copper, lead, zinc, tin and tungsten). Similar high levels of trace metals reflected in surface waters and stream sediments near mine sites suggest that there is a significant release of these metals into the environment.”

  7. Joel B1

    Wow, this is so Crikey.
    You live in a century old-mining town then bitch about heavy metals?

    Get a grip on reality Crikey, you’re an embarrassment to real journalism.

    Obviously, you’re very good at commenting on other media reports…

  8. Frank Campbell

    Well Joel, fact is no one was aware of heavy metal pollution until recently, least of all the people who lived and worked in these towns. The companies often knew, but kept quiet. Wittenoom is the worst example. At last count 7000 have died with many more to follow, from mesothelioma and related cancers. The only reason I didn’t work there in the 60s is that I thought that the dust would aggravate my asthma. In the mid-70s hardware store workers didn’t wear masks when cutting asbestos-cement sheet. The danger was known then but most people ignored it.
    The Port Pirie lead smelter poisoned the town for decades. Only in the 1990s did extreme lead concentrations in children get attention.

    There are dozens of stories like this around the country.

    No surprise that in the most backward region in Australia, the West Coast of Tasmania, there’s finally some realisation.

    So your arrogance is misplaced, Joel.

  9. Glenn Brandham

    Well said, Frank.

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