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Asbestos devastates Aboriginal community

Extract from Australian Broadcasting Corporation - ABC Online, on 13 March 2005

There are a lot of very sick people among the Bunjalung Aboriginal people of Baryulgil in northern New South Wales.

James Hardie opened an asbestos mine in the town in 1944 and in the years that followed, its Aboriginal workers were exposed to levels of carcinogenic dust thousands of times over the then, inadequate, government standard.

Children played in tonnes of asbestos tailings scattered throughout the community.

In 1977 ABC reporter Matt Peacock went to the community and revealed the circumstances of the mine, it was closed down not long after.

This week he went back for the /7:30 Report/ and found, nearly 30 years after the mine's closure, alarming signs of asbestos-induced disease in a community which feels it has been abandoned.

For decades the local community felt lucky to have a job at James Hardie's asbestos mine but the company never warned them the mine's asbestos and the tailings or shivers scattered around the town could kill.

Residents say the dust from the mine was everywhere, flying into the classroom at the local school.

Barry Robson from the Asbestos Diseases Foundation says there are strange things going on in the community.

"We met people out there with asbestos literally coming out of their fingers, their stomach and their feet," Mr Robson said.

"We've also seen three of the grandchildren who have lost an eye.

"What is going on?"

One female resident says her house still fills with white dust, especially when the wind blows.

Matt Peacock says when he first came to community nearly 30 years ago, he noticed the road turned from red to white as he drove in.

"The pile of what I thought was sand in the school playground was also white," he said.

"And I remember the hair going up on the back of my neck when I realised what it was - asbestos.

"Thirty years later, I've come back to see what happened to the children who played in those asbestos tailings and their parents who worked in the James Hardie mine."

Local man Albert Robinson never worked in the mine, his only exposure was as a child, living in the community.

He says the local graveyard is full of young people, in their 40s and late 30s.

"There was a pile of asbestos sand, we used to slide around, play around in it," Mr Robinson said.

"In the afternoon when Dad knocked off, we used to have a shower, sat down in the shower shed-full of asbestos in our eyes, in our ears, just wipe [it] out of our nose every day."

Mr Robinson has had to have an eyeball removed after a cancerous growth grew behind the eye.

Other residents say they are losing their eyes and suffering from tumours.

Dr Ray Jones of the Bulgarmgaru Medical Service says the situation is unusual.

"This is a very rare disease in a small community like Baryulgil, which is a very, very small community," Dr Jones said.

"To have three episodes of this happening in the space of a couple of years, to quite young people, has to got to point to some sort of environmental factor and that environmental factor overwhelmingly would have to be asbestos."

This week, the dust bus from the New South Wales dust diseases board is in Baryulgil for a mass screening of its current and former residents, following a request from the community and the Asbestos Diseases Foundation.

Currently, the board has six ex-miners from Baryulgil on its books who have contracted asbestos-related disease.

Nobody can actually say just how many Baryulgil people's health have been affected by the Hardie mine, but all the signs point to a lot.

Another resident Greg Harrington says for him, and others, the exposure to the dust was so great that he literally has asbestos coming out of his skin.

"With the asbestos, 40 years later I still have it coming out of my fingers, I got it in my thumb there, out of my fingers there and out of my toes," Mr Harrington said.

"But I also had it coming out from around my gut. When you lifted the bags to get 'em off the scales, it was rubbing on your gut because you had no shirts on or anything like that to protect yourself."

Others have the first telltale sign of asbestos exposure scarring of the lungs - asbestosis or cancer could follow.

Amongst those identified, the former Commonwealth middleweight champion Tony Mundine, who grew up at Baryulgil and worked briefly at the mine. His mother, father and three sisters are now all dead.

"My uncle died and a lot of people right around here that we were very close to," Mr Mundine said.

"It's still hurting us, [to] see my uncle gone.

"We're here to fight this case, with Hardies and also the Government, too.

"The Government was just as much to blame, to let this community suffer.

The New South Wales and federal Governments have certainly known of the Baryulgil people's plight.

Former New South Wales Labor member Maurie Keen chaired an all-party parliamentary inquiry in 1981 that unanimously recommended the provision of adequate health services and an immediate investigation into the incidence of asbestosis. Over 20 years later, Mr Mundine is furious.

Mr Keane says he has often wondered why no further action has been taken.

"Why was no action taken? Who was covering up? I think it's a blot on the conscience of Australia, because I'm quite sure, if it had been a white community, there would have been immediate action," he said.

"You can see what happened in Western Australia and everyone else who was around Sydney or Melbourne pulling down asbestos ceilings or walls, and they're going for claim, but they're getting it, too, but we lived in it," Mr Mundine said.

"We worked in it. My family, my community lived in the place.

"And we can't - can't get satisfaction off Hardie or the Government."

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