Tarago community members called out in outrage after Transport for NSW admitted they had "dropped the ball" by failing to notify residents about local lead contamination discovered five years ago.
Transport for NSW officials addressed a town hall meeting of more than 80 Tarago residents on March 9. NSW Health had notified Goulburn Mulwaree Council of lead contamination at the Tarago Rail Siding on February 28.
Monday's meeting revealed lead contamination was detected at the Tarago site in 2015 after preliminary investigation works, four years earlier than Transport for NSW had stated earlier this month.
When the Post asked Transport for NSW on March 4 when it had been found, a spokesperson said contractor John Holland Rail had identified elevated levels of lead "in the course of construction of the Tarago Loop Extension". Construction began in July 2019.
Tarago Progress Association president Wayne Bayneham said the community was outraged. Transport for NSW did not have all the answers and the meeting was "poorly put together," he said. "It'll be interesting to see if they come back with answers [at the next meeting]. "They think it's better to say sorry than ask permission."
Transport for NSW executive director Tom Grosskopf said the statutory authority had "dropped the ball". "We completed our regulatory obligations, but we failed," Mr Grosskopf said. "We failed to inform the community of the [risk of] works we were undertaking."
Mr Grosskopf said a risk assessment in 2015 had looked at the impact on workers. It found the three main dangers were accidental ingestion, inhalation and contact with contaminated soil, he said. Further testing wasn't carried out until early 2019 by the Ramboll Group on behalf of Transport for NSW, when a "short-term lead management plan" was put in place. "We mitigated any risks to our workforce and the community," Mr Grosskopf said.
Between 2015 and 2019, Transport for NSW undertook no earth works on site. During the rail siding's construction, risk management included dust suppression with water carts, personal protective equipment (PPE), and separation of the site. The contamination was covered in matting and cement in November 2019.
At no time was the Tarago community informed.
In February this year, residents of the Old Station Master's Cottage were relocated to Goulburn after their home was found to be 10 to 15 times above safe exposure limits. At the meeting, the residents asked Transport for NSW when they could return home. "How are we supposed to get our daughter to school?" one asked. "My husband had to take time off work to drop her off and pick her up."
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The family was "pretty distressed," said Transport for NSW deputy secretary Carol-Anne Nelson. "From their perspective we are not helping them enough," she said. Ms Nelson said that while Transport for NSW wanted to remediate the house, more testing had to be conducted first. "At the moment, we are jumping at shadows, because we don't know what we don't know," she said.
Community members also expressed concerns about the safety of students and staff at the nearby Tarago Public School. A Tarago parent called out that she was worried her children had consumed contaminated water at the school.
Education NSW tested dust, paint and soil samples at the school in late February 2020, with acceptable lead levels returned on March 6. The school's water tanks had not been tested. Ramboll Group spokesman Steven Maxwell said water tested at the Old Station Master's Cottage was found to have low and acceptable lead levels.
- Transport for NSW will conduct free property and blood testing of lead levels for concerned Tarago residents, who can contact Transport for NSW on telephone 4907 7525 or email email@example.com
Community questions Transport NSW promised to address at another meeting in four weeks time (questions edited for clarity):
- What were you investigating in 2015?
- Can you provide all the information unrestricted?
- Can you provide the business case on the site?
- Why this location when you knew it was contaminated?
- What investigations/tests were conducted in 2015? Results?
- What's happening with the contaminated materials? When was it covered?
- What testing was done before December 2019 that year?
- Between 2015 and 2019 what measures were put in place to stop soil disruption?
- Why hasn't the water been tested? When will testing commence?
- How are water tanks tested for contamination?
- Are the old railway sleepers contaminated? What's happening with them?
- What testing was done during works?
- Open carriages transported materials from the mine over many years across long distances: will the whole area be tested?
- There are lots of people not present tonight, how will you communicate?
- What about the groundwater? Will this be tested?
- Are livestock at risk?
- When will further testing at the school occur?
- Is our water safe to drink?
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