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Smelting Emissions Escape Regulation

Ineffective regulatory authorities and inconsistencies in pollution licensing for mining and smelting operations in Mount Isa and Port Pirie are leading to massive emissions of the toxic pollutants arsenic, cadmium, lead and sulfur dioxide, according to research published in Aeolian Research.

In Port Pirie the national 1-hour standard for sulfur dioxide emissions was exceeded 50 times in 2012, and recent 24-hour maximum lead-, arsenic- and cadmium-in-air levels were 45, 42 and 36 times above recommended annual levels for air quality.

At Mount Isa, the national 1-hour standard for sulfur dioxide emissions was exceeded 49 times in 2012 while recent 24-hour maximum lead-, arsenic- and cadmium-in-air levels were 25, 495 and 36 times above recommended annual levels for air quality.

“These emissions escape regulation because of special pollution arrangements in Mount Isa, which permit exceedences until the end of 2016, and because the pollution measures are based on an annual average value,” says Prof Mark Taylor of Macquarie University.

Emissions of arsenic, cadmium and sulfur dioxide are not included in the licence arrangements for the smelter at Port Pirie ,and therefore cannot be enforced. Furthermore, atmospheric lead measurements are based on an annual average so they don’t capture the short-term emissions spikes in places like Mount Isa.

“In essence,” says Taylor, “the companies running the smelting operations in these cities have been granted a licence to pollute, which would not be acceptable elsewhere in the state”.

The data show that not only are the emissions related to elevated blood lead levels, but that respiratory health in each of these towns is significantly worse than elsewhere in the state.

For example, 2007–08 records show that the Port Pirie City district area had hospital admissions for respiratory illness at a rate of 3774 per 100,000 population, compared with 2036 per 100,000 population for the remainder of South Australia. At Mount Isa, hospitalisation rates were 80% higher than the rest of Queensland, and asthma mortality rates were 322% higher than the rest of the state.

The human effects of exposure to excessive arsenic-in-air and cadmium-in-air concentrations have never been examined in either city, but preliminary evidence in the study suggests that the outcomes are likely to be adverse.