Lake Macquarie Smelter Site (Perpetual Care Of Land) Bill 2019

21st August 2019

Mr GREG PIPER (Lake Macquarie) (10:05): I could not be happier to be speaking in debate on the very important Lake Macquarie Smelter Site (Perpetual Care of Land) Bill 2019. I acknowledge that the Minister is in the chair and I will refer more to the Government's role and the Minister's role as I progress. I acknowledge that we have some important guests in the public gallery. While I might not have all of their names, I note that we have Darren Van Aarndt from the Green Capital Group, Abdul Deeb and Patrick Noone from Costco, Mr Tom Tang, Gwen—Darren's personal assistant—and Stephen Wills from the Department of Premier and Cabinet. I thank those people for coming along. If we get an opportunity later on, we might be able to have them meet with the Minister; I am not sure what her day is like. I acknowledge them because they are a very important part of the story and the future of this important part of northern Lake Macquarie.

I will speak in some detail to elements of the bill, but if members will indulge me a little I will go back a bit. I have been around for quite a while. For the Minister's knowledge, I was elected to council in 1991 and before that I was involved in the local environmental movement. One of the big issues for Lake Macquarie at the time was how to deal with what was a behemoth of an outdated lead and zinc smelter that—not through any fault of its own but just through the natural progression of development—had become tightly surrounded by residential and business development. As time moved on, we realised that those two land uses are incompatible with human health, particularly with the development potential of children. It was very important that we addressed the future of the Cockle Creek Smelter.

That created a lot of conflict and conflicted emotions in the local community because the smelter had been there for over 100 years, having kicked off in 1896. It employed an awful lot of people in the area. People were saying, "Hang on, we grew up here. This is our town. Are you saying there is something wrong with us because we grew up here?" We were not saying that; we were saying that statistics show that children who have elevated blood lead levels have a high risk of reduced IQ and learning outcomes. We had to address that concern and that meant there was a huge loss to the local economy by way of a loss of jobs. We moved into another phase then, which was the decommissioning and remediation of the site. The site was transferred from Pasminco when they decamped the area, to use a polite term for it, and left the community with a largely unresolved problem. It was taken over by the deed administrators, Ferrier Hodgson, who I have had a lot to do with over the years—very little of it I would say was enjoyable. They have frustrated the community, the council and the State Government in not being able to deliver the good outcomes that the community of northern Lake Macquarie and the region deserves.

This bill sets out to address those problems. I would not say that successive Governments have failed because I think that you have to walk the path, see what can be done and try to work in good faith with those who are there, but it gets to a point where you have to draw the line and say, "We cannot continue with business as usual." To their credit, this Government and this Minister have stepped forward to resolve that issue.

The Minister's second reading speech covered the issues exceptionally well and I have spoken to representatives from Lake Macquarie City Council who were very pleased with what they heard. I think they felt that the Government really had dealt with the detail of what they were trying to resolve for our community.

Mrs Melinda Pavey: The essence.

Mr GREG PIPER: The essence, that is right. It distilled the essence of what we were after. I also acknowledge the Opposition spokesperson. [Extension of time]

I want to acknowledge the member for Swansea, the Opposition spokesperson in this instance. I have had discussions with her about the bigger picture of this area. There are still issues around the old township sites and I am working with the Government, particularly through the Minister for the environment, on those matters. I will continue to do that. This is a discrete matter that is going to be a game changer for the local community, the greater community and the region. I acknowledge that.

I go back to the bill. The Government will be acquiring about 92 hectares of land formerly owned by the Pasminco lead and zinc smelter. Clause 5 of the bill is going to see control the land transferred to Hunter and Central Coast Development Corporation [HCCDC] which will oversee the sale of parcels of land. Clause 7 of the bill provides for the long-term management of the contaminated land, in particular the 45-metre-deep cell which contains some 1.9 million tonnes of contaminated soil that has been excavated from the site. Clause 7 requires the Hunter and Central Coast Development Corporation to prepare and implement a long-term environmental management plan for the cell. The Waste Assets Management Corporation will take over the day-to-day management and monitoring of the cell. Clause 8 contains similar requirements for the rest of the land including land zoned for housing, commercial or retail and environmental land such as Munibung Hill. Clause 10 ensures that all money raised through the sale of land parcels is quarantined for the purpose of managing the cell in perpetuity and establishes the Containment Cell Perpetual Care Fund.

There has been a little bit of talk about the history, mainly from the member for Swansea who spoke to it in some detail, but I reiterate that this smelter was established in 1896. It operated for more than 100 years until it closed in 2003. As the mayor, I remember sitting up on Munibung Hill at the invitation of Fitzwalter Group—I think it was—to watch the demolition of the stack. That was a momentous occasion for residents of Lake Macquarie because that was a clear indication that things were changing. Let us not forget that this smelter provided a lot of jobs over many years and that should be recognised. It also provided a lot of economic stimulus, not just to our area but to New South Wales and Australia. Having been involved in the environmental remediation of Lake Macquarie, I can tell you there is an awful lot of lead still in Lake Macquarie, which shows just how much went through there. It did not all come out of the stack; a lot of it went into the local water. Core tests from Lake Macquarie can still identify the high production periods of World War I and World War II. So you can see that it was a very important part of the local and Australian economies.

But times move on. The company decamped from the site and in 2003 the Environment Protection Agency [EPA] issued a remediation order. In 2007 the then Minister with responsibility for planning approved plans to remediate the site and to construct a containment cell. There was controversy around some of these things. I will not got into it in great detail, but for the record there was a lead abatement strategy [LAS], which was implemented by the Minister in 2006. I will soon be revisiting that strategy with the Minister. Lake Macquarie City Council did not support the LAS. Possibly we did not get the best outcome for the community but it is what it is, and we now have to move forward.

I believe local residents will be very pleased with what is happening here. The deed administrator might not be quite so happy about it, but I am not too concerned about that. I understand that the creditors have received significant dividends over the period. I understand that eight dividends were provided so I think it is time for the administrators to leave and for the security of the site to be transferred back to the people through the State. It is really important that we provide security of tenure over the containment cell. It needs to be managed in perpetuity. There has been a huge discrepancy between what the deed administrator says needs to be set aside for that purpose and what the State has identified as being more realistic.

The process that we are going through now will allow for the funds that have accumulated through the sale of these land assets to go into a sinking fund to manage the matter and therefore reduce the sovereign risk for the State. I believe that that is smart. The main thing that people will notice is the change to the landscape as the site is redeveloped. The member for Coffs Harbour referred to Munibung Road, which will be a very important link through to the Cardiff industrial estate. That is a key part of the plans that Lake Macquarie City Council and the State Government have been working on. This bill brings together a host of benefits. There is a specific provision for green capital. That is not a secret; the Minister referenced this in her second reading speech, and the bill is very explicit about the ability for the State and Hunter and Central Coast Development Corporation to trade in that land with those parties that have been involved and have shown faith in our local area for some time.

Once again, I thank those people who have stayed the course. Obviously there would have been opportunity costs if these matters had not been resolved reasonably quickly; hopefully they have been resolved early enough for all the companies to perceive that they can profit and benefit from being in our community. I know our community will benefit from those companies being there. I thank the people involved for being here today. I look forward to talking to them later today. I would particularly like to thank some of the people who have been involved, including Stephen Wills from the Department of Premier and Cabinet. It has been a pleasure to work with him. I thank Peter Francis, the Chief Executive Officer of Lake Macquarie City Council's economic development arm Dantia. I thank the people from Lake Macquarie City Council, including Chief Executive Officer Morven Cameron. Morven and I have sat through many meetings together on this.

This bill is a great outcome but we may not have achieved such a good outcome if we had not had the imprimatur and the assistance of the Premier. I thank her. I have driven her past the site in the car and said, "Premier, just look out there. This is Boolaroo, the Pasminco site; we need to fix this." At every opportunity I raised the matter with the Premier and the Minister.

I thank the Minister and her staff for everything they have done. This will be a great boost for the Boolaroo, Speers Point, Argenton and Macquarie Hills area. It is going to lift the stigma from Boolaroo. If you google Boolaroo you will find a dirty old smelter, but no longer. Hopefully in time when people look at the satellite image it will show a renewed site providing thousands of local jobs and a huge economic stimulus to our community. I thank everybody very much.

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