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.