Lead – but not easily

| January 12, 2021

The Victorian state planning minister has intervened to approve a secondary lead smelter in the Latrobe Valley following the refusal of the local council to issue a permit. The Environment Protection Authority issued a works approval for the smelter which the proponents say would divert 50,000 tonnes of spent lead-acid batteries from landfill annually.

Objectors to the smelter claim that the proposal is technically flawed and that the applicable environmental and health safeguards for lead are inadequate. They insist that the application should have been tested before the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT).

This brief discussion does not address complex technical issues but draws attention to an apparent expectation among some environmentalists and others that technology can satisfy unlimited human demand for energy with no risk to health and the environment.

While it is true, there is no known ‘safe’ level for lead in the blood, it’s also true that lead is naturally widespread in the environment. There is lead in the air, in seawater and fish but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s unsafe to breathe, swim in the ocean or consume seafoods.

There was lead in the blood of early humans, albeit probably well below the average concentration of lead in the blood of people today. The Australian national reference level for lead reflects the blood concentration at which treatment is indicated.

Council rejected the application for the smelter on planning grounds. Objections raised on social media were concerned with alleged health risks to the community, yet there was little or no comment in relation to the potential for exposure of smelter workers. Occupational health awareness is a priority where there is heavy industry and The Valley is no exception. This apparent oversight suggests that the objectors did not regard the smelter as an acute health risk.

It is also perplexing that people will publicly object to a defined and controllable source of lead but are evidently not concerned about well-known but more insidious ‘diffuse’ sources. Lead is a cumulative toxin which is commonly found in soils, soil conditioners, fertilizers and various imported goods including hardware, toys, furniture, cookware, cosmetics, herbs and spices, foods, dietary supplements and complementary medicines etc.

The Latrobe Valley has undergone a series of major economic shocks, most recently the closure of Hazelwood power station. There is resentment of the callous attitude displayed by some remote political and media commentators.

Ironically, the economic wellbeing of those who denounce The Valley still depend on the reliable electricity supplies produced there. Apart from the lead smelter, suggestions that Melbourne’s garbage could be incinerated or buried in worked out open cut mines do nothing to alleviate suspicion that The Valley and its population are expendable.

Setting aside the apparent socio-political aspects of the smelter proposal, it has to be acknowledged that there is a need for recovery of resources associated with batteries and numerous other technologies related to transport and communications etc. This will become increasingly evident in future with so-called ‘lithium’ batteries, redundant solar panels and wind turbines as it is with lead-acid batteries at present.

If it has been established that resources can be safely recovered, a strong case can be made for doing so closer to where the resources are concentrated and may be collected and processed without the unnecessary energy consumption and risk associated with transport of hazardous materials.

There is no need to rely on tenuous self-defeating health and environmental arguments when a strong, rational case can be made for a more energy-efficient and safer alternative system of resource recovery.

‘Technologically optimistic’ solutions to global warming include lithium batteries to regulate renewable electricity supplies. However, all battery technologies demand finite resources and they produce residues which have to be managed. Technological optimism needs to be moderated by science-based life cycle analysis, including health and environmental risks.

Advocates of renewable energy and related battery storage seem to overlook the potential environmental and health impacts of ‘alternative’ technology. ‘Lithium’ battery technology for transport and balancing renewable energy supplies is continually evolving.

These batteries typically consist of lithium with a number of other metals and electrolytes, all of which are toxic. The chemistry is complex and may pose significant health, safety and environmental hazards, including toxic gas emissions and the risk of explosion.

The energy density packed into a small lithium battery capable of carrying an e-bike and rider weighing more than 100 kg over 150 km on a single charge is both impressive and a little scary. Anyone who has tried to insure an e-bike or transport one by air has some insight into the aviation and insurance industries’ risk assessment.

As is often the case with new technologies, the development of safe and environmentally benign extraction, processing, economic recycling and waste management is lagging behind the rapid advancement of battery technology.

It seems reasonable to expect that future lithium battery resource recovery plants will encounter objections similar to those raised against the proposed lead smelter in the Latrobe Valley.


One Comment

  1. NikoleJennes

    January 13, 2021 at 5:53 am

    Interested article, keep it going!

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