"Welcome to The Isa," reads a sign on the highway. "Now you’re a real Aussie."
Three smokestacks of varying sizes appear from the ruddy hills, and then the small town famous for its mine and rodeo. A town where Queensland’s outback frontier image is made real.
The smokestacks are celebrated in street installations. They are looked on with affection even, by some residents. The woman staffing the tourist office, who moved here four years ago, describes them as "kind of funky". She says there are days when it is possible to detect sulphur dioxide in the air by a tingling sensation in the back of the nose, but that "you notice the days when it happens because it happens so rarely".
But Xstrata’s Mount Isa copper mine was named the country’s biggest polluter in the annual National Pollutant Inventory data released last week. Figures for 2006-7 show the mine ranks highest in the country for zinc, sulphur dioxide, lead, copper, cadmium, arsenic and antimony emissions. The figures measure soil and water as well as airborne emissions.
According to a statement by Xstrata’s Environment Manager Ed Turley, the figures can be misleading. "The volumes reported include emissions that do not leave the site, such as the metal contained in dust that is generated and settles back on the ground when a front-end-loader dumps a load of ore," he said
The town of Mt Isa grew around the mine. Residents are happy to identify the smokestacks – the big brown one for zinc/lead, the middle-sized red and white striped one for copper, and the baby bear, a small white smokestack, from the new acid plant which reprocesses sulphur dioxide into fertiliser as an emission reduction measure. Street names like Carbonate and Sulphur St echo the sense of upbeat industrial faith which sustains the town. While other towns navigate a minerals boom that could go bust, Mt Isa has 85 years of relatively steady income generation and a pride in its unique industrial landscape that has a certain 20th century charm.
But aren’t people worried about living next door to Australia’s biggest polluter?
"It doesn’t bother me," says one man in his fifties, who wouldn’t give his name. "It doesn’t bother me and I’ve lived here all my life. You know they’re putting money towards it, so it is improving." His mate in orange Xstrata overalls nods, but he doesn’t say a word.
Not everyone is so laid back. Vanessa Bridgecock, 26, whose second child is due in May, says she is worried most about the lead levels. "I never really think about it, but it’s worrying for the little fellas. My sister moved away because of the stack. She didn’t want her kids around it." Her partner works at the mines. "Once I went to pick him up and there was a cloud of sulphur, just a cloud. But a lot of them get danger money." At the end of our conversation she asks where she can find the NPI report.
Catherine Donovan, 29, whose partner also works at the mine, is even more wary. "If this was in Brisbane can you imagine the jumping up and down there’d be?" Donovan says Mount Isa residents have to put up with the mine, admitting that "without it the town wouldn’t be here".
"I’m not starting any conspiracy theories here but I’m pretty sure they don’t tell us everything," she adds. "I won’t drink the town water. I buy bottled."
Clive Sam, a Cultural Ranger for the Kalkadoon Tribal Council, is upset by the pollution. "Our country has been just destroyed by greed," he says. "It makes me feel terrible… It’s become hard for us to get our bush medicines – some days it can even be hard to breathe." He says his kids were fine when they lived in Brisbane for several years, but "the moment we move back here they play in the dirt here and they break out in sores".
A 2001 EPA report (from before Xstrata took over) quantified locals’ reactions to the environmental issues, which identified concerns about air pollution and lead and sulphur contamination. Fifty-nine per cent of participants agreed that regulations were too lax in the mining industry and 79 per cent that more can be done to reduce fumes from Mt Isa’s smelter. Despite locals’ concerns, the report found no difference in respiratory health between Mount Isa residents and the national average.
Xstrata has reduced emissions significantly since they took over Mount Isa Mines five years ago. Since 2000, sulphur dioxide emissions from the copper smelter have reduced by 77 per cent. Six of the seven top rated emissions categories have reduced significantly since the previous year’s figures: lead by 22.5 per cent, zinc by 13.5 per cent, copper by 12.7 per cent, cadmium and sulphur dioxide by 12.5 per cent and arsenic by 8.5 per cent.
Workers are regularly tested for lead levels and rotated off the lead smelter if their levels are too high. The mine employs some 4200 people – in a town of 22,000, a significant slice of the labour force.
The company says Mount Isa Mines has reduced its emissions significantly in recent years and is working to make further improvements.
Many of these measures have been voluntary. Under special agreement with the Bjelke-Petersen government, Mount Isa Mines was one of nine of some 1200 mines in Queensland which were exempt from complying with the Environmental Protection Act. Under a new bill introduced to State Parliament last month, these nine mines will finally be brought into line and forced to comply with the Act. There will then be a three year transition period for Mount Isa Mines to submit an environmental management plan.
There is no shortage of scrutiny. Although the NPI figures are submitted by companies compulsorily, other studies occur in parallel. A three year study by the University of Queensland’s Centre for Mine Land Rehabilitation began in 2006 and is set to release initial results this year. And in a program devised by Queensland Health, 403 children have been given blood tests in the last 15 months. The prosaically titled "Get Bled for Lead" is compiling data and is set to announce results next month.
John Piispanen, Director of Environmental Health, says the study was initiated as a response to community concerns. "There’s been whispering about it for years and it was appropriate that Queensland Health respond to that." However, Piispanen distances the study from the mine’s record on pollution. "It’s a highly mineralised area – there’s lead in the ground." Naturally occurring lead levels in the mineral rich soil do confuse things – if nothing else this illustrates the difficulty of establishing causal links to illness from environmental factors.
Xstrata was happy to put their name to the study, although it was entirely funded by Queensland Health. The mine has an expo scheduled for next weekend, offering heavy machinery displays, employment advice and fun activities for the kids. They have a representative on the Living With Lead Alliance, a new body whose members include Queensland MP Betty Kiernan and Council representatives. They are changing.
If the new bill is passed in the Queensland Parliament, change will soon be an obligation.
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