Profits from iron ore line the pockets of Australia’s biggest miners and are vital to treasury coffers. The fallout is a thick layer of dust that covers everything.
Iron ore brought Arnold Carter to Port Hedland in the 1960s.
It was early days for an industry that would become critical to Australia’s economy, no more so than in this current recession.
Profits from iron ore line the pockets of the nation’s biggest miners and are vital to treasury coffers.
But Mr Carter says Port Hedland wasn’t always an iron ore town. Back then, it was mainly wool that left the wharf.
Now, big mining dominates — so much so the WA Government, on behalf of industry, is offering to buy out people living in the historic end of town.
The idea is to reduce the number of people living beside the dust-polluted port, but locals don’t want to be forced out of their homes.
“Honestly and truthfully, it’s the greatest rort I’ve ever seen in my life,” Mr Carter said.
“I find it incredible that they are coming up and asking people to leave.
“I’ve been in my house for 40 years. You’ll never get me out of it, and there is a lot of people in that position.”
Four generations of Kerry Jacoby’s family have lived in their house overlooking the busy port.
Her father-in-law, like many local men, went to war from Port Hedland.
He was a builder, so when he returned to Australia he built a family home running down to the beach on Richardson Street.
“The kids loved growing up in Port Hedland. It was an amazing place to grow up,” Ms Jacoby said.
Almost half the town of 14,500 people is employed directly or indirectly by the iron ore industry.
People are proud of their contribution to the nation — they’re keen to tell you that if it wasn’t for the red dirt leaving the port, the economy would’ve ground to a halt during the coronavirus lockdown.
The Jacoby family is no exception.
“We all accept industry has to stay,” Ms Jacoby said.
“What’s done is done, but leave us here.
“And if they do force us out, make it worthwhile — an ocean view for an ocean view.
“There is no consideration for what we think about where we live.”
New Zealander Lynne Taylor came to Port Hedland as a single mum of four children 23 years ago.
She ran a business providing security for events across the Pilbara. Now, she has the oldest drinking establishment in Port Hedland, the Pier Hotel.
It’s what locals call a skimpy bar.
“It used to be a bustling community and now it’s not,” she said.
“They have made sure of that.
“You go down the middle of town now and you would be lucky to pass two people. It’s dead.”
“They should be paying for our cleaning here.
“They should be paying for replacing our roofs.
“They should be paying for our water bill and our air-con maintenance and repairs bill.
“They should be paying for replacement of any rusted structures, because they’re causing it.”
Ken McCorry owns Hedland Launch Services, which runs tugboats out to the iron ore ships.
He reared his children in Port Hedland and his son works with him in the business. Over time, he has seen the town change.
“Realistically, with the amount of money that comes through this town, we should have footpaths made of gold blocks,” he said.
“Basically we’ve got nothing, we’ve got nothing, and we are getting stripped of it every day.
“It’s a shit town, but it’s our shit town and we love it.”
The property buyback comes more than a decade after the WA Environmental Protection Authority flagged it was concerned about the possible health effects of dust on people living near the port — in particular, its links to heart and lung disease.
Despite the EPA’s concerns, in 2012 the State Government launched a flashy campaign encouraging people to live and invest in Port Hedland.
It was boom times in the Pilbara, so investors like Gary Wightman decided to sink millions into the town.
He built two apartment blocks in the heart of town, no more than 800 metres from where BHP loads its shipments of iron ore bound for China.
“I thought it was a lifetime investment,” he said.
“This is the Government putting it out that they were going to build two high schools by 2021.
“The last seven years, I’ve just seen a complete scale back.”
Mr Wightman wasn’t the only investor caught out.
The historic Esplanade Hotel broke records when it sold for $30 million in 2012. Its new owners were keen to capitalise on the Government’s promise that Port Hedland would become a bustling Pilbara town.
China’s appetite for iron ore was voracious and miners were getting top dollar for their product.
But as shipments increased, so too did dust pollution and the expense of maintaining the grand hotel.
The hotel was put back on the market. The owners told the ABC that as part of the eventual sale, they had to sign a non-disclosure document.
Land title documents show the hotel was bought by BHP and its Japanese business partners for at least half of what the previous owners paid.
What is acceptable?
Last year, iron ore was worth $64 billion to the Australian economy.
For the port’s biggest exporter, BHP, iron ore accounted for 66 per cent of its profits in the 2019–20 financial year.
With iron ore prices climbing, BHP, Fortescue and Roy Hill are seeking approval to ship more — 85 million tonnes on top of the 491 million tonnes exported in 2019.
It’s a stipulation of their licence that miners do not exceed levels of dust particulate in order to protect people living near the port.
In Port Hedland, the air quality standards vary from what the National Environmental Protection Council recommends.
The state government put in place an interim level of acceptable dust pollution for Port Hedland 40 per cent higher than the national standard.
Numerous health studies have found PM10 dust (particles with a diameter of 10 micrometres or less) can get deep into the lungs and is linked to respiratory disease.
The interim standard has been allowed for 10 years.
RMIT University environmental engineer Gavin Mudd said it was unacceptable.
“If I’m in Port Hedland, why am I being forced to accept poorer air quality than the rest of Australia? That’s not fair, that’s not equitable,” Dr Mudd said.
“Certainly if you are looking at speeding fines, all sorts of aspects of the way we apply our laws, we don’t allow special cases to be exempt like this.”
Ms Taylor believes the dust affects her breathing.
Two years ago she was prescribed an asthma-prevention puffer, and she has deliberately increased her exercise.
“So that builds my lungs up to make them stronger,” she said.
“So I’m not going to become an invalid because of it, if I can help it.”
The mining industry has been responsible for monitoring its own dust output in Port Hedland.
There are eight monitors throughout the town feeding information about dust pollution 24 hours a day.
Each year, these monitors have found dust levels regularly exceed the national standard.
In 2019, the regulatory monitor on Taplin Street, which is written into the big miners’ licences, did not work.
The broken monitor was reported in the Port Hedland Industry Council annual report.
Chief executive Kirsty Danby said although the PHIC was alerted to the issue in April 2019, it did not start to investigate until January.
“We had a suspicion that maybe because we had zero exceedances in that financial year that there might be an issue with it,” she said.
For nine months last year, there was no data showing what the dust levels were for that residential area.
Both the PHIC and the Government have confirmed that despite the prolonged failure of the Taplin Street monitor, there have been no repercussions for industry.
Both said it was not a compliance matter.
“If you were caught speeding, you don’t turn around and say, ‘Sorry, my odometer is not working, my speedo isn’t working’,” Dr Mudd said.
“That doesn’t hold. The police or the court system would never let anyone argue that.
“It’s your responsibility to make sure it’s working properly.”
The responsibility for dust monitoring in Port Hedland was meant to transfer to the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation in 2018. It is yet to happen.
In an internal memo obtained by the ABC through freedom of information, DWER senior staff noted the current “air quality network does not satisfy Australian standards”.
In the minutes from a 2019 meeting, DWER staff said they were concerned the buyback scheme might “disincentivise industry” from spending money on dust control.
“It is not possible to know what the dust levels will be in five years’ time,” it said.
“If there is an increase in dust from current levels, there may be health impacts that impact more Port Hedland residents.”
It noted there was potential for the problem to push east of Taplin Street. Just east of Taplin Street is St Cecilia’s primary school.
Standing their ground
In June, the Minister for Ports, Alannah MacTiernan, announced the $200 million industry-funded buyback for people living near the port.
She says she does not believe the buyback will stop miners from spending money on curbing dust levels in the community.
In the next five years BHP says it will spend $300 million on dust control; in the preceding decade, it spent $400 million.
The company made a $20 billion operating profit from West Australian iron ore last financial year.
The voluntary buyback scheme offers 400 residential properties the indexed value of their home as at August last year plus 35 per cent and expenses.
Some residents have sold to BHP or the Government, and some of those houses have since been demolished.
BHP declined to be interviewed and referred the ABC to the Port Hedland Industry Council.
“There will be people who will not want to move, I understand that,” Ms MacTiernan said.
“People like Arnold Carter has said he wants to be carted out in a box, and we totally respect that, but we do have to recognise that this town has been built on iron ore.
“We’re not giving the mining companies a free pass.”
Tighe O’Donoghue is a production technician in the iron ore industry. He lives overlooking Port Hedland beach with his pregnant partner.
He says if it has been deemed safe for him to work during the day in the industry, it should also be safe to go home to his house overlooking the port at night.
“I’d like to trust the Government has done enough research,” he said.
“Now, that might be a bit naive, but I’d like to believe that the companies have done enough research on the industry.”
Mr O’Donoghue doesn’t plan to sell as part of the buyback. He, like many residents, doesn’t think the Government’s offer is fair.
Many bought in the boom when an unrenovated house sold for more than $1 million on the beachfront.
Despite being in one of the more remote parts of Australia, the rise of property prices in Port Hedland during the peak made it more expensive than real estate in Manhattan.
That’s when long-term Port Hedland resident Rod Brown bought his modest property, hoping to develop the large block looking out over the ocean.
He said if he were to sell his house as part of the three-year buyback, he would go into retirement $500,000 in debt.
The buyback offer is based on 2019 property prices, when the housing market had fallen up to 80 per cent since the boom.
Fred Riebeling, who was appointed as commissioner when Port Hedland’s council was dissolved last year, says while the scheme is the most generous ever put in place in WA, he believes many locals expected more money.
Residents disputing the buyback are concerned that if they don’t agree to sell, the local government is going to force them out anyway by rezoning the area as an industrial precinct.
Mr Riebeling says that is highly likely.
“The hope of the state is that everyone uses the buyback scheme and it becomes an industrial part of Port Hedland,” he said.
But Mr O’Donoghue says he will not be selling.
“I will pursue it to the highest court in the land,” he said.
“You can build around me if you like.
“Have you seen The Castle? It’s pretty much that sort of battle.”
Watch this story on ABC TV’s Landline at 12:30pm on Sunday, or on iview.
Reporter: Sinead Mangan
Videography: Chris Lewis
Photography: Chris Lewis and Alex Hyman
Digital Producer: Daniel Franklin