EPA to investigate as Nyrstar admits Port Pirie smelter will exceed annual lead emissions limit

Port Pirie’s smelter is on track to cut annual lead emissions by almost 20 per cent but is still forecast to breach limits set in a new licence, resources company Nyrstar says.

South Australia’s Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) said the predicted breach was based on current tracking of the smelter’s lead-in-air (LIA) emissions.

In a statement on Tuesday, the EPA said the smelter would breach conditions of its new licence issued in July, which directed the company to lower its annual emissions by 20 per cent.

EPA chief executive Tony Circelli said current readings point to Nyrstar exceeding its new annual average LIA limit of 0.4 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3) at the Pirie West compliance monitoring location on December 31, 2020.

The company is also likely to exceed annual average limits at the Ellen Street and Boat Ramp locations.

“While the EPA investigates this matter formally, it will not be appropriate to comment or speculate on likely compliance outcomes.

“Suffice to say, this is an extremely disappointing outcome and indicates unacceptable discharges of lead to Port Pirie in 2020.”

When the predicted LIA figure is confirmed, a formal EPA investigation will be launched.

Nyrstar labels new limit ‘a challenge’

In a statement on Monday evening, Nyrstar said the average LIA result for the 12 months to December 31 was approximately 0.42 µg/m3.

Nyrstar said the result, “while well below the previous limit”, narrowly exceeded its new limit by approximately 0.02 µg/m3.

“Nyrstar acknowledged in June that the new limit would be a significant challenge for the site, and has been proactive undertaking numerous initiatives throughout the year to improve air quality in the community and to work to meet the challenging new limits,” the statement read.

“These have included completion of significant capital works during maintenance stops, upgrading of its air-monitoring network, initiating new road- and materials-handling improvements and purchasing new street sweepers to deliver an improved and expanded site cleaning program.”

The company said the LIA result was “significantly influenced” by two hot and windy days in November.

“In the absence of high wind on these days Nyrstar expects average LIA would have been below 0.4 µg Pb/m3,” it said.

Port Pirie Mayor Leon Stephens said it would have been difficult for Nyrstar to meet the new annual limits within six months.(ABC News)

Port Pirie Regional Council Mayor Leon Stephens defended Nyrstar, saying he was comfortable that the smelter was “tracking very well” towards achieving its new emissions limits.

“We’ve been talking closely with Nyrstar — there’s a couple of predicaments they’ve actually faced with it,” he said.

“I don’t think you’re going to be able to do it.”

However, Mr Stephens conceded the result “isn’t good enough”.

“Nyrstar would be the first to say that as well,” he said.

“They understand what they have to do, it does take time to get in place.

“I’ve actually said to their VP, this time, I can understand in six months it takes a little while to change … as far as delivering efficiencies … [but we’re] probably not going to be as receptive next quarter, if that’s what happens.”

The EPA, however, said it considered the new limits to be reasonable and “practically achievable by Nyrstar” in 2020.

A children's playground with no one using the equipment, in the background across a the water is a lead smelter.
The World Health Organization says there is no safe level of lead exposure for children.(ABC North and West SA: Gary-Jon Lysaght)

Once the figures are confirmed, Nyrstar will be required to file a report to the EPA by January 8, 2021, detailing the cause of its targets being exceeded, along with proposed actions to avoid the same thing happening again.

The EPA will consider that report and its own investigation before it determines “what further enforcement actions are appropriate”.

The incident follows SA Health data revealing in November that lead levels among two-year-old children in Port Pirie were at the highest they had been since testing began in 2011.

Of 68 two-year-olds tested during the nine months to September 2020, blood lead levels averaged 6.6 micrograms per decilitre, up from 6.5 mcg/dL in 2019.

SA Health considers two-year-olds to be the most accurate age group to measure lead exposure in the general population, and World Health Organization guidelines state there is no safe level of lead exposure in people.

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