MAC: Mines and Communities

Aborigines in asbestos cases blitz

Published by MAC on 2006-04-22

Aborigines in asbestos cases blitz

by Ean Higgins, The Australian

22nd April 2006,20867,18832372-23289,00.html

ABORIGINES from a community that mined asbestos for James Hardie Industries under appalling conditions will next month launch 10 test cases seeking compensation for physical and psychological injury.

The move follows a 60-year controversy, which has seen the Baryulgil Aboriginal community in northern NSW ravaged by asbestos after all its 200 members were exposed.

In 1984, a federal parliamentary select committee heard overwhelming evidence that Hardie knowingly exposed its Baryulgil workers to dangerous levels of asbestos without adequate protection, and had not met legal health requirements by 1976 when it sold the mine, which closed three years later.

In 2004 Hardie quietly excluded the Baryulgil people from a $1.5 billion asbestos compensation deal, and only included them after The Australian revealed they would be the only Australians left out.

While 12 former Baryulgil miners have received statutory workers compensation, the test cases will be the first seeking civil damages for non-miners.

Most of the 10 plaintiffs are miners' children who were exposed to asbestos by playing at the mine, the school playpit made out of asbestos tailings, or other sites around the town filled with the deadly fibre.

Now in their 30s, 40s and 50s, they are showing signs of asbestos disease after the typical incubation period of 30 to 40 years.

Barrister David Baran said the cases would be the forerunners of others, which would eventually cover the entire community.

Apart from physical damage, the plaintiffs would seek compensation for the psychological trauma of seeing relatives in the close-knit community die from asbestos disease, and the fear of contracting such illnesses themselves. "A lot of the people who have relatives deceased are in the front line and they are very, very ill," Mr Baran said.

He said he would cite a case in Western Australia in which a full bench of the Supreme Court ruled that former Wittenoom asbestos mill worker Arthur Della Maddalena had suffered psychiatric injury caused by exposure to asbestos, despite the fact that he does not suffer from the asbestos cancer mesothelioma. In February, the High Court ordered the case to be retried.

Among the first 10 plaintiffs is Albert Robinson, 42, who grew up in Baryulgil. A few years ago he felt a pain in his head and, he said, "my eye started to fall out". Doctors removed the eye and scooped away a cancer growing above his nasal passage, which was making the eye bulge out.

Ray Jones, a doctor for the Aboriginal Medical Service in Grafton and whose rounds include Baryulgil, said such a cancer was exceedingly rare but the community had three similar cases. "It's only a tiny little area -- to get all these weird tumours in one place is about the same odds as winning the lotto," he said. "Asbestos is a carcinogen. The overwhelming evidence points to asbestos."

Mr Robinson had a CAT scan this month, which showed the lining of his lungs was riddled with pleural plaques, a scarring caused by exposure to asbestos.

Mr Robinson worked as a stockman but had to give it up because he started feeling weak and breathless.

He used to visit his father, Albert Sr, when he worked at the asbestos mill, where "you couldn't see from me to you" for the asbestos dust, he said.

Mr Robinson has seen a good part of his family perish before their time. His father died at 60, even though "he never drank or smoked in his life", he said. He watched his mother, Eunice, die from mesothelioma.

Mr Robinson's sister Charlotte lies in the graveyard at Baryulgil, having died of lung disease at the age of 46.

Another sister, Janice Boota, also has pleural plaques. She has a club finger from which, it appears, asbestos fibres continually push their way out.

Hardie spokesman James Rickards did not return calls or emails.

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