Geraldton lead alert

Gareth ParkerThe West Australian
The West logo

A lead alert at Geraldton that sparked an indefinite ban on exports of the heavy metal was not a threat to human health, the State Government said.

Lead sulphide was detected at eight times the acceptable level by environmental air monitors during a 5000 tonne shipment of heavy precious metal, containing 30-40 per cent lead, exported by MMG from Geraldton on October 22-23.

The test results were received by the Geraldton Port Authority and passed on to the Department of Environment and Conservation last month, but the news only reached Transport Minister Troy Buswell’s office on Wednesday.

This raised questions about whether the public should have been alerted sooner.

Mr Buswell, who flew to Geraldton on Thursday to reveal the breach publicly, conceded there were “lessons to be learnt” about how environmental breaches were communicated between regulators and the public. Lead shipments came under intense public scrutiny after a contamination scandal in Esperance in 2007 that killed hundreds of birds.

That incident involved lead carbonate, which is considered more soluble and dangerous than the lead sulphide detected in Geraldton.

Mr Buswell said the Government was confident the elevated level of lead, which was detected at one of three monitoring stations at the port, was a one-off event caused by loading the ship in high winds.

He said Geraldton port guidelines prohibited loading of ships in winds above 25 knots and weather data showed wind gusts exceeded that speed while the ship was being loaded.

Lead was detected at one of three sensors, located north of the ship and upwind.

“It is highly unlikely there is a public health risk,” Mr Buswell said. Nevertheless, lead exports had been suspended as a precaution while monitoring systems and loading procedures were improved.

Miner MMG, which exports four shipments a year of the precious metal concentrate through Geraldton from its Golden Grove mine in the Mid West, said it was taking the breach seriously.

City of Geraldton-Greenough mayor Ian Carpenter said he was satisfied with Government assurances that human health was not at risk but the council had asked for additional testing of crustacean and fish species.

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