Port Pirie’s lead smelter at risk of breaching licence to operate due to record lead levels
One of the world’s largest primary lead smelting facilities is at risk of breaching its licence to operate because of record lead in air levels.
The potential licence breach comes amidst concerns from the Australian Workers Union that up to 100 jobs could be lost at the facility.
Port Pirie’s Nyrstar smelter, in South Australia’s Mid-North, has recently undergone a $660 million redevelopment, of which the former State Government underwrote nearly half, roughly $291 million.
Part of the development included a new furnace, which was touted to reduce emissions throughout the city.
That furnace opened earlier this year.
The new Nyrstar development at Port Pirie was touted as being able to reduce emissions throughout the city. (ABC News: Glen Moret)
But, a recent Environment Protection Authority (EPA) report revealed lead in air levels had risen to their highest point since 2014.
Now, internal emails from the Nyrstar site’s general manager Mark Zaborowski, obtained by the ABC, reveal the company believes it is at a “critical point” in terms of lead in air levels.
“We are at risk of breaching our licence to operate this quarter,” the email said.
The internal emails indicate that the smelter will need to cut emissions by half in order to not breach its licence.
“The licence limit is 0.5 mg/dL, we are currently above that to the point where we will need to run at less than 0.25 mg/dL for the remainder of the year.
“Unless we all make a change to the way we operate or to [the] way we think about fugitive emissions, the potential for us to breach the limit will become a fact.
“If there are fugitive emissions from any the sinter plant, the slag fumer, the kilns or from the TSL furnace then we need to shut down that plant and fix the issue.
“Our lead in air impact is not only from the various emissions from the operating plants, it is also from the accumulation of dried material on our roads and building structures.”
Another email confirms that the site’s sinter plant — a key component of its operation — will be closed for six week at the end of November to bring emissions down and to try and avoid a license breach.
Mr Zaborowski stated in his email to staff that the decision was a difficult one.
“This decision brings its own risks to the business both financially and operationally but I firmly believe that it is the right decision to make to ensure that environmentally we do not breach our licence condition,” Mr Zaborowski wrote.
Full site clean-up underway
Nyrstar’s concerns surrounding the breach come as the company undergoes a full site clean-up at the Port Pirie facility on November 8.
Major plant components are being closed to allow for a clean.
Staff from multiple departments will be redirected from their usual roles to help.
In a statement to the ABC, Nyrstar said the clean was part of its commitment to reducing lead in air levels at Port Pirie.
“A large number of employees will be able to participate in activities focused on reducing and addressing emissions within the plant rather than operating plants for this period of time.”
The clean up comes as Nyrstar’s share price falls to its lowest point in three years.
The company was trading at a high of $5.28 in August, but it has fallen to $1.51 in recent days.
EPA not ruling out revoking licence
The EPA has not ruled out revoking Nyrstar’s license to operate the Port Pirie smelter (Supplied: Malcolm Stein)
The Environment Protection Authority issues licences to operate to facilities like Nyrstar’s Port Pirie lead smelter.
Keith Baldry from the EPA SA said, under extreme circumstances, Nyrstar could have its licence revoked.
“That could happen,” he said.
“That would obviously be at the most serious end of offending against the Environment Protection Act.
“That would obviously have serious consequences for any particular operator.”
Mr Baldry said fines for breaching licence could range from hundreds of dollars, to a revocation of that licence.
“There are a whole range of businesses that we licence, from small operators up to large ones,” Mr Baldry said.
“If we were to seek a larger penalty, that would either be through the civil penalty process, or through the courts.”
Current government concerned
Former Labor Premeir Jay Weatherill, centre, and local MP Geoff Brock, second left, at the announcement of the smelter upgrade. (ABC News: Eloise Fuss)
The former South Australian Labor government underwrote nearly half of the redevelopment as part of deal struck with Port Pirie’s local MP, Geoff Brock.
Mr Brock requested it after a hung parliament situation left him as the kingmaker.
Current Liberal Treasurer Rob Lucas said concerns about the lead in air levels are concerning.
“For the people of Port Pirie and the community and the workers there, it’ll be an issue of concern,” Mr Lucas said.
Mr Lucas said lead in air levels would be a topic of discussion when he met with Nyrstar’s global head next month.
“As Treasurer, the key issue we have to drive is the shape and structure of the deal that’s been struck,” he said.
Current Treasurer Rob Lucas said he’s concerned about environmental issues surrounding Nyrstar, (ABC Radio Adelaide: Malcolm Sutton)
“The requirement, from the government’s viewpoint, that they make their repayments.
“[Nyrstar] haven’t made significant repayments in May of this year, they’ve indicated they’re not going to make significant repayments in November.”
As part of the underwrite deal, Nyrstar were expected to repay the $291 million loan to the State Government in instalments, but without set intervals.
“There is a legal doubt about the enforceability of the repayment regime that [the former Labor government] entered into,” Mr Lucas said.
“There is no provision to protect the number of workers jobs in Nyrstar, which just seems extraordinary.”