Seemingly affordable real estate in a picturesque rural town is ending up costing buyers up to $2 million to develop as they must pay to remove lead-contaminated soil from their properties, an investigation by Central News has found.
Landowners in the small New South Wales southern tablelands mining town of Captains Flat are reaping the toxic consequences of the Lake George Mine operations that were discontinued 60 years ago.
In 2020, Transport for NSW discovered elevated levels of lead in the disused rail corridor adjacent to the former Lake George Mine.
A taskforce was established to oversee the work of testing soil, collecting data, and keeping the local community informed.
Local landowner Cade McDermott, 27, has been told he must spend millions of dollars if he wants to build a home on his vacant block in Captains Flat.
The first home buyer thought he was making a smart financial decision when he purchased the property in November 2019.
“I’m a single guy making $70k a year. I can’t afford to buy anything in Canberra. The Captains Flat property was 1000 square meters,” McDermott said.
“That’s brilliant for young people.
“[But] I told the mayor if he forces every resident to pay $2 million, Captains Flat will turn into a ghost town.”
McDermott, who claims he was not informed about the area’s lead issue prior to purchasing the property, was technically homeless for two and-a-half years as a result, and had to live at his workplace with the permission of his boss.
“I lived in my work office in the industrial area of Fyshwick and had to shower at my gym,” he said. “It’s been rough.
“Living in an industrial estate with prostitutes and parties going on around me all the time was soul-crushing.
“An office isn’t designed to accommodate people. It doesn’t have enough light or airflow. I constantly felt like I was getting sick. I felt like a prisoner.”
McDermott submitted a development application (DA) to build a home on his property in November 2021. In January 2022, the QPRC advised him that in order to start construction, he would need to undertake EPA’s free garden soil testing to check if lead levels in his soil were high risk.
He said the test results fell within the council’s original safety guidelines.
McDermott emailed the council on March 30 to prove no signs of lead were found. That same day he said an environmental health officer rejected the tests as they were “insufficient”.
I have to pay for the soil to be decontaminated, verified and signed off to then be put in landfill somewhere… which will cost an arm and a leg.
A council officer told him it had changed the guidelines and could no longer accept his result without a Detailed Site Investigation (DSI).
“Even with my full DSI that I’ve already paid $15,000 to complete out of 25 site tests, three of them are just over the Council’s lower limit of lead safe enough to live with,” McDermott said. “It’s frustrating.
“The free testing is off the table for whatever reason. If I am to remediate the land, I have to pay for 36 truck and dogs (trailers) to drive half-a-metre of the entire block to Brisbane.
“I then have to pay for the soil to be decontaminated, verified and signed off to then be put in landfill somewhere.
“I also have to pay to fill up that amount of dirt on my block with virgin excavated natural materials, which will cost an arm and a leg.”
A spokesperson for QPRC said it is a state requirement to confirm whether the land is contaminated with lead. It applies to any land in NSW that has “potential for contamination”.
A Standard Remediation Action Plan has been developed for minor works on private properties in Captains Flat, such as extensions. It does not apply to new dwellings, subdivisions, or vacant blocks.
McDermott has been fighting with the council to modify his build. He suggested he put his home on poles so it doesn’t disturb the contaminated soil. He is still communicating with the council’s legal coordinator, hoping to one day pay his mortgage rather than rent.
Investment property Captains Flat property owners Jim Rose and Jude Ardern have found themselves in a similar situation.
The retired couple bought a block of land in the neighbourhood two years ago to build an investment property. The road into Captains Flat had just been redone, so they thought it would be a promising place to invest.
Rose said they didn’t have any knowledge of the lead contamination when they first purchased the property in February 2021.
Even the EPA, with the level that we had, said we would only need mulch to cover it. They are the scientists.
“The previous owner never mentioned they had the land tested for free by the EPA, which revealed that there was a low level of lead at one spot,” Rose added. “We had never thought it was something we had to ask.
“It’s a well-known secret in Captains Flat. It used to be a mining town, and everyone knows that there’s lead there somewhere, but you don’t expect to find it on your property.
“Because we didn’t live in the area, we had no idea that there was a public meeting about the lead contamination, and they had given out leaflets.
“When we were going through the DA process, lead wasn’t mentioned, so we paid thousands of dollars to get a planning certificate.
“Even the EPA, with the level that we had, said we would only need mulch to cover it. They are the scientists.”
The 18-month delay has increased the couple’s construction costs to $70,000, and if lead over the safe limit is found in their soil, it will add an extra $35,000 to the development.
The couple has withdrawn their application as it has become too expensive, and is now worried property prices in Captains Flat will plummet and no one will want to buy there.
Their own land continues to sit in the town untouched.
“The only way to sell the property is to have lead cleared off it. We don’t see why we should pay the money to remediate the soil,” Rose said. “I personally think the council’s hands are tied. The NSW Government should try to get some funding.”
He added money from an inheritance was used to pay for the land, and the couple had planned to eventually retire in the town.
“It’s a lovely place, Rose said. “We don’t want people to stop buying there.”
Main image of Jim Rose at his Captains Flat property supplied.