Every morning, around nine, a white truck branded with the letters ‘TLAP’ pulls up to the Flinders View playground on the quiet main street in Port Pirie. The truck is decorated with a bright cartoon of happy kids playing beneath a caption that says ‘Proudly greening, cleaning and washing down the community.’ Two workers in high-vis shirts jump out and retrieve cleaning equipment and a water hose and spend a few minutes spraying and cleaning the plastic slide, the swings and the little green frog see-saw.
Having only lived in town for a few weeks, I asked one of my new co-workers why council would be so committed to vigorously cleaning the play equipment. She explained that just a few years ago there were no playground washers, until some environmental researchers from Sydney found dangerous amounts of lead dust on the hands of children who had used the playground for just 20 minutes. Both of us knew why this study did not cause much of a splash when it was first published. Within our eye line was the 205-metre chimney of the Nyrstar lead smelter, the tallest structure in South Australia and the clearest landmark rising out of the mangrove swamp on which Port Pirie was built. For most of its 120-year history, Port Pirie has relied on this lead smelter, the largest in the world, which churns at the centre of town. The playground lead study was just another report showing the high concentrations of lead, zinc, arsenic, cadmium and other heavy metals within the lived environment – in the marine sediments and the mangroves, in the soil and hobby gardens and, of course, homes.
In 2016, nearly half of the children in Port Pirie had blood lead levels above the National Health and Medical Research Council recommended warning level of 5 micrograms per decilitre. This is a fact many people in Port Pirie feel uncomfortable talking about.
‘You wouldn’t believe the guilt you feel,’ a young mother says to me, unprompted, during a conversation in the supermarket.
Over time, it becomes clear that this response has roots in the smelter’s public health campaign, called the Targeted Lead Abatement Program (TLAP), which uses empowerment language to encourage residents to take responsibility for the lead dust blanketing their homes. The campaign has a moralising tone: it says clean your home, keep a tidy yard, make sure your kids eat right and you can live safely with the lead. It says nothing about the thousands of children who have been poisoned over the last century. Given this toxic legacy, the health campaign’s can-do slogan, styled in colourful font, begins to seem particularly sinister: ‘It’s in our hands.’
Despite its first impression as a town of empty concrete spaces and a general pallor over everything, Port Pirie’s real charms lie behind the empty shop fronts of the main street, in the white stucco, wrought iron cornices, art-deco chimneys and sunken living rooms that dominate the residential architecture – the kind of suburban uniformity that makes you wonder whether the town started life as a model village for 1950s featurism. Walking around my neighbourhood each evening feels like a stroll through the Atomic Age. Every house has a 10-metre-tall TV antenna in the front yard to reach up far enough to catch the TV signal partially blocked by the nearby Flinders Ranges. At sunset their silhouettes resemble snorkels reaching up for air, like the breathing roots of mangrove trees.
In my documents folder, I keep a map from the SA Health department which shows the concentrations of lead pollution around the town site. The poorest houses are located just to the west of the smelter, where there is also the highest lead concentrations. My rental, located in one of the mid-tier lead contamination zones, was one of the rare houses that had real, living grass in the front yard. Most other frontages are either gravel or, especially in the newer and wealthier estates furthest south from the smelter, astroturf – a useful green lawn substitute that can be washed and vacuumed.
Every week I pull leaflets from my mailbox announcing the progress of the $500 million redevelopment to the smelter underwritten by the state government. The leaflets are at pains to point out that the plant employs roughly 750 people and that it handles about 187,000 tonnes of lead concentrates and sells about $450 million of metal products each year. In a town where one third of households earn less than $650 a week and the unemployment rate (13 per cent) is the highest in South Australia, the state with the worst jobless rate in the country, these figures carry a lot of weight. (Although I later learn that the upgrades will actually reduce the total number of jobs and do little for the intergenerational unemployment – two or three consecutive generations unfamiliar with work – that affects a large proportion of the 17,000 people in Port Pirie. ‘There’s no jobs for them there,’ one social worker tells me.)
Every leaflet also has information on the TLAP effort to reduce lead poisoning in the community. This includes brochures with the ‘Top 10 Tips’ for keeping lead outside your home, including leaving shoes outside, ‘damp mop, don’t sweep’, serving kids iron-rich food, growing certain (non-leafy) fruits and vegetables and washing toys, pets and children that have been left outside for too long. Tip two is ‘don’t allow children to eat while on the floor’.
Young children are targeted because they are at greatest risk of absorbing the lead from the environment, and suffering its long-term afflictions. Even at low levels, lead poisoning interrupts the development of the central nervous system and is correlated with behavioural and developmental problems including severely reduced IQ, reading ability, emotional control and increased aggression. There is apparently no safe threshold.
I meet mothers who say the campaign has convinced them they are responsible for keeping the lead at bay and must remain hyper-vigilant at all times. Responses tend to fall into two categories – on the one hand there are those who toil all day to maintain the absurd standard of mopping, sweeping and cleaning, and on the other are all those who fall short and fret over what this is doing to their baby. When a child does poorly in school or starts behaving aggressively, everyone wonders: was it the lead, bad parenting – or both?
Paranoia hangs over every aspect of life. Some worry about leaving their kids in cars that have not been cleaned, or trusting babysitters who don’t follow the recommended standards. Others take their young families and move to the satellite towns in the wheat and canola farming hinterland around Pirie. A handful would rather not know, and simply refuse to have their children’s blood tested, taking comfort in their ignorance.
A mother-of-two tells me she eventually went through the house and threw out all the TLAP-branded freezer bags and shopping bags her family had been given over the years. ‘It’s everywhere, we have to live with it every day,’ she says. ‘Sometimes you just want to forget.’
If anyone in charge of the program had bothered to check the nonfiction wing of the Port Pirie library, they would have found a 2005 report commissioned by the State Government that foresaw exactly this problem. The authors warned that households could do little to change the fact they were ‘bathed in a constant “sea” of lead’, and found the primary responsibility for reducing fugitive emissions lay with the smelter operators.
‘Victim blaming should not be part of the (TLAP) approach,’ the report concluded. Subsequent reports from around the world have all come to the same conclusion: household interventions to prevent lead exposure do not work.
Expressing this, especially as an outsider, leads to uncomfortable silences and, occasionally, mild confrontation. I begin to understand some of the reasons for the local defensiveness. For decades residents were told that it was historic lead pollution, not the giant chimney, causing the health problems (the independent state MP for the area, Geoff Brock – who used to work at the smelter – was saying a version of this as late as 2012). On top of this, the effects of low-level lead poisoning cannot be immediately seen in the individual; it takes large epidemiological studies to tease out the truth. All the locals know is that their parents and grandparents used to swim in the tailings dump near the smelter when they were kids and then went on to live long and productive lives. So lead becomes a phantom health problem cooked up by journalists and academics as part of a conspiracy against Port Pirie.
And, besides all this, any criticism of the lead problem strikes at their collective identity: they see themselves portrayed as morons living in a dirty town, an undesirable outpost populated by country simpletons who are stunted developmentally and intellectually. A friend recounts a time when one of his dinner guests, a local, became agitated during a discussion about lead pollution. ‘So you’re saying my dad is an idiot?’ he snapped, before leaving the table.
All of this makes fertile ground for people wishing to deploy PR exercises instead of hard political solutions to the problem. Standing on the front steps of the Nyrstar offices during a visit in 2015, Premier Jay Weatherill calls the redevelopment a ‘re-imagining’ of the ‘dirty town that has a reputation for lead pollution’ and which will clear the ‘cloud that has hung over Port Pirie’. This is a neat trick, isn’t it? Framing the issue as one of bad publicity and of ‘reputations’, rather than the literal cloud of lead which can be measured by the microgram in the blood of children – a toll that can be quantified in lost years and life possibilities.
This spin reached its apotheosis at the launch of the second phase of the ad campaign for the smelter redevelopment, where some 100 members of the business and social elite – marketing types, politicians, smelter operatives – sat among the wooden panelling of the Port Pirie Automotive Club for a fancy dinner and the launch of a new website.
On a projector screen up on the stage, smiling airbrushed faces were cut between drone footage of the Nystar smelter site, and chino’d corporate affairs-types stood behind the lectern saying things like ‘embrace the content’. The campaign has the vague title Come See Change and its masterminds have zero reservations about pushing the phrase as though it carries some mystical significance.
Take, for example, the acoustic guitar theme song, a car dealership jingle with the chorus: ‘Things are gonna change, change, change’.
Or how about the Come See Change website itself, where one of the featured essays is titled ‘Change your view’ and is written by Dianah Mieglich, who handles PR for the TLAP program and is billed on the website as someone who ‘embraces change’. She begins with (I kid you not) the dictionary definition of the word change and really hammers home the point from there:
Port Pirie is changing. Changing the story about Port Pirie is a fundamental first step in bringing about change in perceptions for our vibrant community … Change your view, change your perception and join us in embracing the change in what is the City of Port Pirie.
Near the end of the meeting, Nystar’s communications manager, Gail Bartel explains this is all intended as a ‘reputational change campaign’.
‘We can’t leave it to the media to portray positive stories,’ she says. ‘As I know from working in media, it doesn’t really work. It isn’t always about positioning us in a positive light.’
On the website, these ‘positive’ local stories – archetypes of a regional community – co-opted by the company have been placed next to the supposed benefits that will flow from the upgrade, including a new sports complex and some fresh median strips around town. The stories almost succeed in distracting from the details of the upgraded smelting facility, which is euphemistically described as one that will deliver an improvement in ‘environmental performance’.
It took me more than a year to sign up for my first Smelter Tour – one of the two attractions listed on the highway tourist signs outside Pirie, the second being the ‘Shark Exhibition’ – where I joined maybe ten elderly tourists on a small school bus looping around town. We start in the ‘Cultural Precinct’, which consists of a Greyhound bus station with a tourist information centre and a small local art gallery. Between the bus station and the huge grain silos that flank the river is the local McDonald’s, the unofficial cultural precinct, and beyond that is the Bridge to Nowhere, so-named because it leads only to a small and barren mangrove island across the Port Pirie river. We turn left just before the Nyrstar gate at the end of the main street and head to the west of town, passing abandoned factories with broken windows and other industrial decay.
Most houses on this side of town were purchased and then demolished in the 1990s during a ten-year program to clean up historic lead pollution. Authorities went around the more affluent suburbs sucking tonnes of dust out of roofs, vacuuming carpets and sealing cracks in 2,200 homes. But in the west, the houses – 92 in total – were considered too old and too porous to leave standing. The area is now marked by the weeds and hardy shrubs of a growing bushland and the bitumen is starting to succumb to potholes.
We stop at one of the houses owned by the Environmental Protection Agency to monitor lead-in-air concentrations. It is a ghostly thing, haunted and abandoned, like a historic settlers cottage or the site of an unsolved murder. The windows have been left open a crack, and four squares have been marked out in white tape on the floor of the front room so they can accumulate dust for measurement. Around the back there are four child bath seats screwed into the ground – for collecting dust, I guess – which felt like a hidden memorial.
Most of the other houses on the street are shuttered or for sale. They are faded and beaten by the sun, with front yards full of weeds or the occasional kids tricycle melting on bare concrete. One still has what looks like a relatively new rainwater tank collecting water from the gutters, a mere 150m from the chimney. The suburb is wedged between the smelter and an abandoned rare earth treatment plant, now gated-off with a barbed wire fence and a stand of dead trees. No surprise then that the households here, the poorest of the poor, have children with blood lead levels on average nine micrograms higher than their low contamination counterparts.
This shows how lead exposure is organised around class lines: it is now only the under-privileged and poor who shoulder the burden of lead poisoning in this country. Even in one of the most disadvantaged towns in Australia, single mothers and unemployment benefit recipients are the most likely to have elevated blood levels. This is not just the case in Port Pirie, but in the west of Sydney, or in Mount Isa, Broken Hill or the Hunter Valley. Lead poisoning is an economic disease, a contagion of disadvantage.
Nyrstar insists the redevelopment will cut lead emissions to a negligible level. Macquarie University’s Professor Mark Taylor, the lead author of the original playground study, is not so sanguine. He tells me that as long as there is a smelter at the heart of town, there will be high lead levels among children.
In 1984, nearly all young children in Pirie (98 per cent) exceeded the 10 microgram limit. In 2005, there were 95 children with a blood lead level above 20 micrograms, a fact the usually reserved health authorities saw as ‘a disgrace’. A succession of smelter operators and state governments have all failed to meet the targets of their lead reduction programs, with few repercussions. In 2014, the Adelaide Advertiser reported a ‘loophole’ created by the state government which allowed Nyrstar to avoid prosecution and a $120,000 fine for exceeding the EPA standards for lead emissions. A quarter of children in Port Pirie today have lead levels above the previous target and half beyond the current target. Many of these children are reaching maturity now – what might their future look like?
They will enter adulthood caught between a conservative politics that spends its time attacking ‘leaners’ and ‘welfare cheats’ and demonising any sort of social safety net, and a progressive class that repudiates their lifestyle and beliefs, and expects systemic disadvantage to be toppled by individuals armed with nothing but the baseless optimism and empowerment language that comes so easily to those with a secure economic base.
In Port Pirie, as so often happens in Australia, a system of regulation and social accountability has ceded prominence to ‘positive messages’ and individuals being expected to guard their home against 44,000 tonnes of lead dust being dumped over their town each year. As with Indigenous kids at Don Dale or refugees on Nauru or problem gamblers setting their own bet limits at the pokies, this subtly shifts responsibility to those who supposedly ‘brought it on themselves’. They inhabit a world where complex ethical or environmental problems can be solved by adjusting our shopping preferences, the personal is political, and fridge-magnet-style truisms are enough to feel good about population-wide lead exposure in children.
When the smelter tour bus drops me back at the Cultural Precinct, school kids are leaving for the day, and the bus driver – a former truckie – is in a reflective mood.
‘I used to drive past Port Pirie and see the lead smelter blowing shit around town, then get up to Port Augusta and see the coal plant blowing its guts out, get to Whyalla and see the steel works blowing its guts out,’ he says, wiping his hand down his face.
‘Cancer rates around here are shocking. Maybe it is time we clean our act up.’