As the next generation of a northern NSW Aboriginal community waits for signs of fatal disease caused by asbestos, compensation remains non-existent. By Susan Chenery.

James Hardie’s Baryulgil asbestos mining ‘genocide’

Linda Walker believes she is still alive for a purpose. She is here to tell the story of what happened to her people, to remember. She is here to “keep the story going for the asbestos people”.

The story is of an open-cut asbestos mine in Baryulgil, a tiny Indigenous community on a ridge that rolls away to fertile grazing country along the Clarence River near Grafton in northern New South Wales. For 72 of her 78 years, Walker lived next to the mine. “I reckon it killed the whole of my family,” she says.

The exposure to asbestos in Baryulgil was perhaps the highest in the world. But the mine’s operator, James Hardie, did not tell residents or workers of the risks until decades after they were known.

When the health impacts were finally revealed, compensation was almost non-existent. Health records were hidden and autopsies rare. Some speculate that all this was deliberate: that James Hardie banked on the fact Indigenous workers would die early anyway, and the cause not be questioned because it would be blamed on alcohol or cigarettes. They banked on the fact no one would notice how few men in the cemetery were aged over 40.

Now another generation, who played in the dust as children, had it in their food and rivers, wait to see if they too will die. They feel like time bombs. One of Walker’s sons has died. Another “is really sick with a heart and lung disease”. Her husband is dead. Three nieces and two nephews are dead from cancer. One was only in her 20s, the others in their 30s. “Their lungs were no good,” says Walker. “I have seen them walking around Baryulgil when they were so sick.”

The latency period for asbestos exposure can be 15 to 35 years. It is a slow and deadly killer. “You don’t know you have got that disease until you get it,” says Barry Robson, president of the Asbestos Diseases Foundation of Australia. “There is no precursor to it. It just appears and that is it. There is no cure.”

1 . Story of injustice

Linda Walker is the keeper of memories, left alone to bear the loss. The sadness seeps from her. Her story is a story of a great injustice that has happened on our doorstep, on our watch, the story of an entire community being slowly poisoned. No one knows exactly how many have died.

“I had seven brothers. Six that worked in the mine died,” she says. “My dad was diagnosed with asbestosis in 1958.”

Walker nursed her husband, Neil, through the long agonising years before he too succumbed to asbestosis in 1998. “In the end he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t talk. Sometimes he couldn’t sleep because he couldn’t breathe and I would sit on the verandah at 2 o’clock in the morning. When you would see him like this you would pray for death because it was so painful.”

Most of the men at Baryulgil worked in appalling conditions in the mine, until its closure in the late ’70s. They used to come home covered in asbestos dust. “Like ghosts,” Walker says.

The children played in asbestos in the school sandpit. The ground was white. They fished in the river, hunted kangaroos that Walker believes were full of asbestos, ate peaches covered in the dust.

“They used to use the empty [asbestos] bags for curtains. For floor coverings, covers for their beds,” says Robson. “Their water was from the two creeks that came out of the mine. That was drinking, washing – everything.”

Scott Monaghan, chief executive of the Aboriginal Medical Centre at Grafton, grew up at Baryulgil. He knows he is living with a potential death sentence. He is 45.

The anxiety for those such as Monaghan is the dread, knowing that people are losing eyes from a cancer that Dr Ray Jones, who worked at the Grafton Medical Centre, says starts at the top of their nose. There is a preponderance of oropharyngeal cancers in the community, where people are aware that the incidence of mesothelioma will not reach its delayed peak until 2020.

2 . Not made aware

The risks of asbestos were not related to the community of Baryulgil until ABC journalist Matt Peacock arrived in 1977 to do a story on the substance.

“They were all coughing,” he says now. “But what struck me was when I spoke to them and asked them if they knew the dangers of asbestos. Nothing. ‘Has anybody ever mentioned that it can give you cancer?’ I don’t think anybody had ever been made aware of the dangers of it. They were virtually swimming in the dust and kids crawling around in it.”

A federal parliamentary inquiry was held in 1983, after media reports and lobbying by the Aboriginal Legal Service in Sydney.

In his book Killer Company: James Hardie Exposed, Peacock writes of an “uneven fight” in an inquiry loaded against Baryulgil. Before proceedings began, ALP backbencher Gerry Hand told the inquiry of the “blatant disregard” for the welfare of Aboriginal people. No one from Hardie gave evidence, insisting that most of the documents from the mine had been “mislaid”.

Says Peacock now: “I certainly think that the original pitch that Hardie made was that the mine was good for them. It wasn’t. It was good for them in the sense that unlike everyone else around the area they had jobs, and so they were more able to stay on their traditional lands than most others on the coast. That is about the only level that was good for them.”

The committee’s report, tabled in parliament in 1984, found serious breaches of the level of exposure to asbestos for the miners. Efforts in the ’70s to implement safer working conditions had been haphazard at best, far less than Hardie’s other factories even though the exposure to asbestos was greater. Inspectors would warn the mine manager in advance of a visit so he could clean up. But the inquiry refused to recommend compensation for the mineworkers.

It was recommended the site be cleaned up, a medical centre installed and houses be built for the community at Malabugilmah, five kilometres down the road. This divided the community, with people refusing to leave their country. “It is our land, it is our country,” says Walker. “They came along and said it is the living conditions that are causing all the problems, the smoking and alcohol. I don’t believe that. A lot of people didn’t drink or smoke, a lot of them worked very hard.”

The medical centre was not established until 1990 and was in Grafton. Around this time, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission reported that “no effective action had been taken to either monitor or reduce the significant health risk”.

Linda Walker knows that high-profile cases such as Bernie Banton, a shift foreman at James Hardie Bradford Insulation, received millions in compensation. That people in the motor industry or Department of Defence got big payouts. 

Walker was given a pension of “20-something” dollars a week when her husband died, after a lump sum of $40,000. “In 17 years, the pension is up to $80,” she says. “That is not much money for losing the person who was the breadwinner for the family.” 

Ray Jones says most of the Baryulgil people who died of asbestos-related illness “died without getting a cent or got a pathetic amount”. When Walker’s brother died, his wife was given $4000 by James Hardie.

Jan Barham, a NSW Greens MLC, says: “These Aboriginal people were singled out differently and brought in under a government-controlled program to provide basic needs for housing and health. For me that reeked of discrimination as compared with how they were dealt with as compared to anyone else.”

After a decade, most of the cases brought by the Aboriginal Legal Service came to nothing. “Some people have won them, some people haven’t,” Peacock says. “I think it has done a lot of damage to the whole process. I think Hardie would have done a lot better if it had genuinely sat down with the community and tried to put in a regime of compensation and rehabilitation at the same time. But it was always a legal process so that didn’t help.”

Monaghan says cases were run through the state government’s Dust Diseases Board, and were difficult for workers. The board didn’t deal with residents. “These people were on a pension, they had limited ability to work because of the disease, so the ability to pay lawyers was never going to be there. A lot of people got their exposure from either living in amongst it or simply driving on the roads. Or going to the local shop or going to the school. So the secondary exposure has not been able to be assisted by the Dust Diseases Board. Because it is not under the Workers Compensation Act.”

In an email, a spokesperson for what is now the Dust Diseases Authority said the body has provided compensation to seven workers who were employed at the Baryulgil asbestos mine as well as other workplaces. “Where a person has had multiple exposures it is difficult to determine which workplace has caused a dust disease. Dust Diseases Care does not have any role in relation to community members whose exposure to asbestos was not occupational.”

Rod Smith, of the Bernie Banton Foundation, puts the problem like this: “It is an unfortunate situation largely because it is an Indigenous community [and] it is easy for the perpetrators of these diseases to just lay the blame on their lifestyle, drinking and smoking. The other problem is that they don’t have the longevity of the rest of the population. So some of these people suffer with the problems caused by asbestos but end up dying before they can get things really sorted medically. There would have been many, many Indigenous people from that community that have passed away and it has not been attributed in any shape or form to asbestos-related disease. Baryulgil should have been cordoned off, shut down like Wittenoom was.”

Peacock agrees: “With the Baryulgil mob, they weren’t expected to live long enough to get the disease. The only way they determine the cause of various sorts of cancers is by epidemiology; that is, counting the bodies. Now, when you have people exposed in the way that they were at Baryulgil – young kids playing in the dust for years on end – well, how many controlled studies have there been on people in that situation? None.”

Linda Walker is in tears by the end of our conversation. She knows all the dead, all the grief, all the fatherless children and families torn apart. She knows, too, that the men and women reaching their 40s could soon die as well. “It is not just the person who is sick but the rest of the family. Everybody suffers along with the person who is suffering. It is very hard.”

In her husband’s last days, his family were sitting around his bed. “He said, ‘There is one thing I want you all to promise me. Whenever anyone wants to talk about asbestos I want you to talk about it. Because I believe that one day somebody in the world, some doctor, is going to come along and have passion for the people at Baryulgil.’ ”

And that is what a sad and dignified old lady believes she is on this earth to do. To try to find some justice for what she calls the “genocide” that happened to her people.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 7, 2015 as "James Hardie’s asbestos mining ‘genocide’".

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Susan Chenery is a journalist who has lived and worked in Sydney, London, New York and Italy.

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