Children in the Queensland mining capital of Mount Isa have been put at risk by fallout from the city's copper and lead smelters because the state Government has failed to routinely test for lead poisoning.
A senior manager at the state's Environment Protection Agency claims political considerations have stopped the introduction of air-quality monitoring and mandatory community health checks at Mt Isa's two smelters - the largest source of lead emissions in Australia.
The monitoring was recommended 12 years ago after tests revealed the amount of lead in the blood of a third of the city's children who were tested breached World Health Organisation acceptable limits, potentially affecting their IQ and brain development.
Tim Powe, a nine-year EPA veteran who has worked as a manager of clean environment policy and is now a project manager in the planning division, accused the Government of pandering to the Mount Isa mine's owner, which has been Swiss resources giant Xstrata since 2004, because it was a major employer and a key revenue-raiser for the state.
"(The EPA is) reluctant to take on large businesses," Mr Powe said of Xstrata's exemption from environmental and health regulations. "Originally it was the threat of job losses and the threat that the move would shut down the smelters. But since that time the company has been taken over (by Xstrata) and it has the financial resources to fix the problem."
The Queensland Government has collected $1.5 billion in mining royalties in the past year, with Xstrata one of the major contributors.
Mr Powe said he warned EPA director-general James Purtill in a briefing note in February that existing monitoring, testing and reporting was inadequate and there was no clear picture on environmental and human exposure to lead pollution.
Mr Powe claimed "nothing meaningful had been done" for more than a decade to address a "serious problem" with lead in the blood of Mount Isa children.
He said it was "reasonable to assume" there were people in Mount Isa who had levels above acceptable limits set by the WHO. No tests have been undertaken since the tests on children in 1992 and 1994.
The smelters, bought by Xstrata through its takeover of MIM Holdings, released 290tonnes of lead into the air in 2004-05. By contrast, the lead smelter at Port Pirie, South Australia - where regular testing has discovered nearly 60 per cent of children have unsafe blood lead levels - emitted 47tonnes. Mr Powe said the EPA told Queensland Health director-general Uschi Schreiber about the lead risks after he wrote his briefing note.
Queensland's acting chief medical officer, Linda Selvey, responding on behalf of Ms Shreiber, said yesterday the Government planned to introduce blood tests to measure lead in Mount Isa children after concerns were raised by the EPA.
Discussions with Xstrata Copper and the mining community would be held this month. But Xstrata Copper spokesman Ed Turley said the 290 tonnes of lead emissions were blown away by prevailing winds for the "majority of the year".
Mr Turley said the company monitored lead-air concentrations at five locations and they did not exceed Australian environmental standards over a 90-day period. He said the effect of emissions on the town's 20,000 residents and employees was well managed.
He said if there was an issue it was not in the EPA's best interests as a regulator to "let dissipate" recommendations that children be tested for lead.
Asked if he could say for certain that no children's blood-lead level exceeded WHO limits, Mr Turley said: "I could not say that definitely, but I believe that the way we are managing the risk is acceptable."
Queensland Premier Peter Beattie will return today from a trip to Russia and China to face questions on the issue.
Mr Powe said legislation exempted the mine from complying with many of the state's environmental standards.
"The amendment bill was set up because when the smelters were owned by Mount Isa Mines, they threatened to shut down the smelter and go offshore rather than meet the additional costs in meeting air quality standards," he said.
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