A new study has found the use of lead solder in water supply pipelines has resulted in environmental contamination across a 70km stretch of land in central New South Wales.

The study found agricultural soils had been heavily contaminated with lead as a direct result of the use and maintenance of lead in the collars of pipe joints.

The soil contamination was linked to toxicity and mortality in several farm animals and to elevated contamination of grass fodder (up to 50 mg/kg of lead) close to the pipeline.

The study, led by Paul Harvey and Professor Mark Taylor of Macquarie University, examined soil adjacent to the Chichester Trunk Gravity Main (CTGM) corridor traversing agricultural land at Woodberry in the Hunter Valley of NSW.

“Soil lead contamination along the CTGM is extreme, with concentrations reaching 20,600 mg/kg at the pipeline,” said Dr Harvey.

“Cattle formerly permitted to graze along the CTGM corridor have displayed signs of lead poisoning, leading to death in some cases. While fencing along the pipeline corridor will prevent access, it does not combat the legacy problem of the contaminated land.

“Other similar large-scale above ground reticulation systems in the Sydney Metropolitan region and adjacent to the 560 km long Kalgoorlie Golden Pipeline in WA are shown to have resulted in similar environmental hazards.

“Our study of the Hunter Valley CTGM pipeline and our assessment of other pipelines in Australia and overseas indicate that soil lead contamination is a potentially significant environmental contamination issue that has gone largely unnoticed until now.

“Many long-distance pipelines built around the 1900s to service water scarce townships were constructed using lead-welded joints,” fellow researcher Professor Mark Taylor said.

“Lead-jointed and lead-painted pipelines pose a potentially significant contamination risk to the adjacent environment, particularly during repair and maintenance phases.

“It is clear that better promulgation of this issue is needed to ensure livestock are protected, and landowners and the wider community are aware of the risks.”

More details are available in the full report - Widespread Environmental Contamination Hazards in Agricultural Soils from the Use of Lead Joints in Above Ground Large-Scale Water Supply Pipeline.