March/May 2023: Orange/Cadia Mine. Lead in Rainwater Tanks

EPA holds information session for residents as Cadia heavy metal contamination probe begins

May 23 2023:

One day after announcing an investigation into Cadia Valley gold mine, the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) has held a community information session in the village of Millthorpe, New South Wales.

More than 40 residents attended after learning that heavy metals had been discovered in people’s drinking water and bloodstreams.

Representatives from the EPA and NSW Health were on hand to hear concerns and provide advice at the session, which EPA chief executive Tony Chappel said was “extremely valuable”.

“They were appreciative we were there to listen to their concerns and discuss the actions we’re taking into the mine and their activities,” he said.

Most came seeking practical answers, including young mum Kayley Woods-Pendergast.

“I was wanting to know, are we safe to shower in [the water]?” she said.

As the mother of a toddler, Mrs Woods-Pendergast is especially concerned about exposure to lead.

She said she appreciated the session but hoped there would be more support to follow.

“I think what they’re doing today is a great start, but I think there’s definitely more they could be doing,” Mrs Woods-Predergast said.

For some, the opportunity to get tested was particularly important.

Stephanie Luke drove from Bathurst to learn how her rain-fed drinking water supply could be tested.

She said she had experienced unexplained health issues for several years.

“I’m quite curious about whether it’s got to do with environmental elements,” Ms Luke said.

“I’m about to have my water tested and I’m getting my bloods tested as well.”

Ms Luke was surprised companies such as Cadia were not legally required to submit weekly air pollution reports and said she felt let down by regulators.

“To hear stories of people, at their own expense, dragging authorities kicking and screaming and [for] the company to acknowledge that there’s an issue, I feel like we’re in some bizarre backwater,” she said.

Russell, who asked that his surname not be published, was only made aware there was an issue in his district that morning.

Because his household relies exclusively on rainwater, he was eager to arrange water tests that would establish a baseline for the quality of his drinking water.

Russell felt grateful for transparency the event gave the community.

“[That] we can have opportunities like this and find out from the people who are the checks and balances what’s going on, what’s proposed and if there’s a role that we can have to help, so that we’re not stopping progress, but that the progress is responsible,” he said.

Community-led rainwater testing near Orange finds one in three tanks have unsafe lead levels

NSW Health is retesting water after residents raised concerns about elevated traces of heavy metals, which they worry is linked to Cadia goldmine

More than a third of the water samples taken from rainwater tanks near Orange as part of a citizen survey and tested by an independent laboratory showed lead results above the safe levels in the Australian drinking water guidelines.

Those results are now being re-tested by New South Wales Health in an effort to determine if there is a broader public health risk. NSW Health has not provided any updates about those test results or said whether they confirm the results of the initial testing.

Seventy-one samples from regional properties in central western NSW were analysed in a Sydney laboratory over summer after a number of residents raised concerns about the safety of their household water supplies. Twenty-seven indicated lead levels above the national guidelines.

The concerns were first flagged in response to dust clouds at the Newcrest Cadia goldmine. All samples are from properties located within 15km of the mine which do not have access to town water.

The sampling program was coordinated by the Cadia Community Sustainability Network (CCSN) with the support of Dr Ian Wright, a University of Western Sydney researcher, as part of a community science study into the impacts of the mine on water quality.

In a statement to Guardian Australia, a spokesperson for CCSN said they received results in February that “showed some rainwater tanks seemed to have accumulated heavy metal in the bottom of the tank”.

They then sent the initial samples plus a few more to a different laboratory to be tested again.

“This scoping exercise confirmed the preliminary results,” the statement said. “In total we have now tested 40 residents in the district.

“We have provided the information to the Environmental Protection Agency and NSW Health. NSW Health is planning to retest the pilot study to determine next steps.”

Wright told Guardian Australia the source of the contamination had not been confirmed, but that the lead levels were such that he recommended they seek further testing.

“The results are just gobsmacking,” he said. “There are children drinking this stuff.”

One sample showed lead levels that were 84 times the safe level of 0.01mg/L in the Australian drinking water guidelines.

Two of the samples contained traces of arsenic. A number also contained high levels of copper and zinc, but not above the drinking water guidelines.

Wright said the source of the contamination was a secondary concern.

“The primary question is a human health question,” he said. “Should there be a public health warning issued? Should people be drinking this water?”

Some of the initial 71 samples were of water collected from farm shed roofs, Wright said. Cross-contamination from farming chemicals and machinery had not been ruled out.

NSW Health last week confirmed it had been contacted by residents who were concerned about their water supply and environmental health officers had begun collecting samples of rainwater that serves as private household water supplies, which will be tested at government-approved laboratories.

But it stressed it does not have a role in investigating where the contaminants may have come from, and that management of private water supplies – which includes household rainwater tanks – was the responsibility of the property holder.

Because the results concern private water sources, they will not be released unless a broad public health risk is identified.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also confirmed it had received a complaint but said it did not comment on ongoing investigations.

Newcrest is also conducting sampling and sending water to be tested at ALS Laboratories, which are providing results directly back to both residents and the mining company.

“Some residents have started receiving their test results directly from the independent experts undertaking the testing,” a spokesperson said. “Tests show drinking water is safe for those who have received their results so far. We are still waiting for the remaining results and analysis of the large scale testing program to come through over the next couple of weeks.”

Earlier, Newcrest said allegations of dust contamination from the mine did not match its own monitoring and stressed that the cause was “currently unknown”.

CCSN said it was hoping to undertake isotope testing of the heavy metals found in the samples, which may help narrow down its origin.

“The CCSN isn’t attributing blame for this contamination until it can be clearly identified where the source has come from,” the spokesperson said. “We hope that NSW Health and the EPA will quickly determine some clear next steps for the community.”

Wright said it was possible that old water pipes and tanks could be the source of some of the metals seen in the samples, particularly copper and zinc. Lead has not been used in water pipes in Australian homes since the 1930s and the use of a lead-based solder on drinking water pipes has been banned since 1989.

NSW Health to test for heavy metal contamination in private rainwater tanks near regional goldmine

Newcrest Mining says reports of contamination do not match its monitoring data from Cadia goldmine near Orange

Health authorities are conducting water testing after residents reported heavy metal contamination in some household rainwater tanks near the Cadia goldmine in western New South Wales.

Representatives from NSW Health attended a community meeting hosted by the Cadia Community Sustainability Network on Sunday, after a number of people who live near the mine had their rainwater tested. Residents suggested that dust from the mine had settled on their roofs and been washed into tanks.

Most properties within a 15km radius of the mine, which is about 22km from Orange, rely on rainwater for their potable water supply.

A spokesperson for Newcrest Mining, which operates the goldmine, said it had been told about some water testing results from some residents but that the contamination did not correlate with the results of their own air quality monitoring programs.

Western NSW Local Health District said it “does not conduct investigations into environmental or ecological factors which may broadly affect the management of water collected privately, including rainwater”, but that it was assisting residents with testing their household tanks.

“Following independent testing not conducted by NSW Health, the community has raised concern with the District’s PHU [public health unit] regarding the safety and quality of privately collected drinking water at a number of private residences south of Orange,” a spokesperson said.

“The District will conduct additional sampling and testing of the drinking water at a number of those residences supplied only by rainwater, to assist residents in identifying any potential contamination which could pose a health risk.

“Should the District’s testing return results outside the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines at any residence, the PHU will provide support and advice to assess and identify immediate sources of contamination and rectify any issues of concern.”

It added that management of private water supplies such as rainwater tanks was ultimately the responsibility of the householder.

Newcrest said the cause of the contamination was “currently unknown”. It has commissioned a third party to test some of the affected tanks.

“We were made aware that some members of the local community recently undertook self-testing on their drinking water tanks that has shown elevated levels of contaminants,” a company spokesperson said.

“We’ve been part of the community for many years and are taking what we have been told seriously, as historical monitoring data shared with the community and regulator does not appear to correlate with what we have been told.”

The company said it wanted to work with the community but stressed that any support it was offering locals who say their water has been affected was in line with support it would ordinarily offer its neighbours.

Guardian Australia understands Cadia offered to arrange a laundry service and to deliver drinking water to one resident, who reported feeling unsafe using their tank water after tests ordered by the resident showed significantly elevated levels of lead and other contaminants.

“Like others, we want to understand what is behind the findings and want to work with the community to do this,” the spokesperson said. “This is our focus and a critical step to ensure the appropriate course of action can be determined, rather than determining actions based on what may or may not be the cause, which is currently unknown.”

The company was fined $15,000 by the EPA last year for failing to maintain appropriate levels of dust mitigation from its tailings storage facilities. At the time, the EPA said it had received “numerous notifications by residents of dust lift events visible from their homes”.