Govt to investigate asbestos illness claim

ABC PM - Friday, 4 March , 2005 18:18:00 Reporter: Toni Hassan

MARK COLVIN: In the late sixties the children of the NSW town of Baryulgil, west of Grafton, had a well-filled sandpit in their playground, courtesy of the local mine company, James Hardie.

The trouble was, what the children were playing in every day in that sandpit was white fluffy dust, kindly donated by the Hardie's asbestos mine.

Now a State Government funded special medical team is about to visit Baryulgil to assess claims of asbestos related illnesses by locals, many of whom were Aborigines.

The open-cut mine operated there from the 1940s to 1979, and locals say it continued to do so without proper protections for employees and residents even after the dangers of asbestos were widely known.

The Dust Diseases Board is to do lung tests and Aboriginal elders and a local health clinic hope the results will open the way for people affected to sue the mining giant and even the New South Wales Government.

Toni Hassan reports.

TONI HASSAN: For all of his childhood, Aboriginal activist Mick Mundine, lived in the shadow of the James Hardie asbestos mine in Baryulgil, a town built on asbestos and asbestos waste, or what locals call "shivers".

MICK MUNDINE: Dad used to get a truckload of shivers and sort of just lay it all around the road you know?


MICK MUNDINE: Shivers. That's the waste when they crush all the rocks and that.

TONI HASSAN: And you played with the shivers?

MICK MUNDINE: Well, we used to go to the mine and when they used to dump all the waste stuff, it's like a big hill so, we used to go up and we used to roll down the hill and play down the hill, all the kids.

TONI HASSAN: As a teenager Mick Mundine even worked for James Hardie, just like his father, handling sometimes raw asbestos, but he thought nothing of it.

Mick's father died young, as did most of his uncles who also worked at the mine, the town's major employer.

Alarm bells began to ring when his brother, boxing legend Tony Mundine, discovered he had a crook lung.

MICK MUNDINE: Yeah well, he got screened down here and Sydney down there, and then he found out from the report that he had a spot on the lung.

Tony never drank or smoked in his life so, you know, where would he get it from?

TONI HASSAN: Mick, who heads the Aboriginal Housing Company in Sydney's Redfern, Tony his brother, and other members of the extended family, will this weekend return to their tiny, once dusty home town, along with many other former residents.

About 200 people, most of them children of former miners, will over three days undergo lung function tests conducted by what's dubbed "the Lung Bus," operated by the NSW Dust Diseases Board.

Still, ignorance can be bliss and so Mick Mundine is heading home with some trepidation.

MICK MUNDINE: Of course I'm worried. I mean, like my brother when Tony found out he had a spot on the lung, it's really brought him right down. So I didn't even get screened yet so, some of the people don't want to get done because they're sort of frightened to find out what's really wrong with them.

TONI HASSAN: What is wrong with many from the town is chronic levels of asthma and other respiratory illness, according to Gloria Strachan, Head of the local Aboriginal Medical Service, or AMS.

GLORIA STRACHAN: We work with the people from out there. We know that they all have respiratory problems and we often, I work upstairs on the first floor of the AMS and we know who's actually coming up the stairs, sitting in the staff room, by the way they're breathing.

TONI HASSAN: The results of lung tests done may strengthen the town's case for litigation, legal action locals have been threatening for years.

In 1994 a Senate inquiry was held into Baryulgil. As a result of that inquiry compensation payouts were made to some workers, all believed to be under $50,000, paid out through the Dust Diseases Board. The mine site was also rehabilitated and measures were taken by James Hardie to monitor and help the health of former employees, many of whom are now dead.

By contrast, mainly white workers at the asbestos mine in Wittenoom in Western Australia received a massive compensation payout of $18.5-million in 1989, recognition of suffering caused by asbestos-related diseases.

Mick Mundine again.

MICK MUNDINE: A lot of the people that got compensated up there, up at Baryulgil, the compensation they got is peanuts.

TONI HASSAN: A Sydney law firm will also be in Baryulgil next week at the invitation of the Medical Centre and Indigenous elders. The firm will offer advice to individuals about possible common law action against the mine operator and NSW Government.

David Barren is a barrister with Stephen Smith Associates.

DAVID BARREN: The real innocent victims, which are the wives, the spouses, the children, the people who weren't actually working in the mine, those people are ones who are going to suffer the worst and nothing's being done.

TONI HASSAN: Mr Barren says he has more than a hundred clients wanting action.

DAVID BARREN: It seems to me that all the options have to be explored, including possibly a course of action against the State of NSW because there are, arguably, occupied liability cases that can be brought in respect of the public school that operated for quite some time even though it was in an area where there was asbestos fibres present and there was fibres and toxic waste in the vicinity where children were playing.

TONI HASSAN: It's an interesting twist that the results of State funded medical tests may be used against the NSW Government.

For its part the NSW Dust Diseases Board says its was dismayed to hear that solicitors will be visiting the town at the same time.

Board Spokesman, Geoff Lansley, has told PM the board is independent of politics and is concerned about being a pawn in someone else's legal game.

The Lung Bus is normally hired by companies but in this case is running the service in Baryulgil for free.