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While some residents of Mooball in northern NSW believe sandmining tailings have caused a cancer cluster, others think it’s a scare campaign to prevent development. By Susan Chenery.

Mooball community divided over cancer cluster claims

Businesses on Mooball’s main road, Tweed Valley Way.
Credit: Chris Wright

In the hinterland between the Gold Coast and Byron Bay, among bucolic rolling green hills, is the merest suggestion of a town. Running along what used to be the main coast road and a disused railway line are a rambling pub, a roadhouse, a cafe. That’s about it when it comes to Mooball. Small already, the village was relegated to backwater status when the Pacific Motorway went through in 2002.

A passing traveller would barely notice it except for the buildings and telegraph poles painted in a black-and-white cowhide print. It’s a touch of whimsy in the northern New South Wales community of farmers, workers, dreamers, people escaping the city. But the village is lately deeply divided.

Ron Marshall, 92, lives in a small brick house on the road that runs through town. Behind his house is a large hill where cattle graze. Some of the residents believe this land is radioactive.

On the other side of the road is a fenced-in piece of land that has been taken over by camphor laurels. This is the site of the old sandmining processing plant, which some believe is at the heart of a deadly problem.

The walls of Marshall’s house are covered in photographs. Most of the people in the photos are no longer here. It is a house of ghosts.

Marshall has lost two daughters to cancer, “beautiful girls”, Amanda, 46, and Bernadette, 49, as well as five brothers and his wife. These brothers – Ken, Geoff, George, Arthur and Lloyd – not only lived along this street, but they toiled at the sandmining plant. His sister-in-law down the road has breast cancer but is still alive.

All along the street and around the corner people have died from cancer – reportedly up to 30 deaths so far. “The next-door neighbour died of cancer,” Marshall says. “It was everywhere, darlin.’ ”

The black sand works went for decades, 24 hours a day. The tailings and waste were dumped. “It wasn’t viable, there was no money in it. It was all free and my block wanted building up at the back – all these blocks along here needed building up. It was cheap filling so we put it in not knowing if it was dangerous or not. The kids used to play in it – it was like a big sandpit for them. Rather than go to the beach and get sand for the kids you would have the big pit at the back. They would have put it in their mouths.”

Mooball residents now too frightened to maintain gardens in their yards have recently met with barrister John Rowe about investigating the possibility of a class action. About 20 households have agreed to have soil tested for radioactive levels.

“The sand they were processing was a sand that has a number of elements in it which are very useful,” Rowe says. “Also other elements, like thorium, which is found in uranium, nuclear bombs and power stations. Similar sorts of sands around Mooball are radioactive and we are consulting with scientists to find out how dangerous this is and if they are getting doses, even small doses. We are just investigating at the moment.”

Dr Paul Malouf has lived in Mooball for 37 years. “I love the place,” he says. “It is just a lovely piece of the planet.” We are meeting at his surgery in Tweed Heads, on the New South Wales–Queensland border.

“I started the ball rolling when I became aware of 12 or 13 people with cancer,” he says. “We have a duty of care to report these things if we think it is a significant thing to be looked into.”

The local newspaper, Tweed Daily News, did a doorknock and the reported numbers of locals with cancer shot to 30 in a population of fewer than 400. “I just thought this was an issue that needed to be investigated. Kids who had been playing in this stuff suddenly got cancers.”

There are some in the area, however, who think Malouf’s raising of concerns about cancer was suspiciously timed. Mooball had been identified as a proposed area for expansion by the state government in the 1990s. “The cancer cluster controversy came after our planning proposal,” says Tweed Shire councillor Gary Bagnall.

The plan is for a housing development that has been zoned to go onto the hill behind Ron Marshall’s house in the main street. The proposal for 500 small houses on tiny blocks will make this peaceful pastoral place unrecognisable. “So many beautiful trees over there,” Marshall says. “It is a real bird sanctuary – hundreds of eagles who will lose their habitat, kookaburras, butcherbirds.”

But the prospect of the development being hampered by reports of a cancer scare is what has divided the community. “People say, ‘You have degraded the value of our properties,’ ” Malouf says.

A few metres down the road the Victory Hotel is the kind of pub where regulars have their own stools at the bar, and locals in workboots at outside tables are settling in for a loud Sunday afternoon session. Here the punters are keen to shut down any stories of cancer clusters. A lot of the men and women around here, they say, worked on the banana farms, which use a powerful cocktail of fungicides and pesticides. All the working men in this area came in contact with chemicals at some point.

Such people are not just worried about their housing prices. They are concerned for their community’s viability without the services and jobs that expansion would bring.

Tweed Shire councillor Barry Longland says: “When it was on the Pacific Highway, that brought economic input. The fact is that we have a small village.  Sometimes you need a critical mass of people in order for services that people want to come to their community.

“It is causing quite a deal of angst – the public exposé about this cancer cluster is having a severe impact on the village, without evidence at this stage.”

 

In the 1980s there were dozens of investigations up and down the coastline of south-east Queensland and northern NSW where there had been mineral sands mining and processing plants, extracting the likes of rutile and zircon from the black sands. Towns such as Byron Bay were fully remediated and approved by the NSW Health Department.

Tweed Shire Council plumber Geoff Keevers was assigned to removing sand tailings from Mooball during remediation works in 1983. The workers dug the black sand out of people’s properties by hand during a five-month operation. Keevers was told the sand was radioactive and given a Geiger counter to wear but was never informed what its readings revealed.

Says Malouf, “When they were getting rid of it in people’s properties they were covered in the stuff, they were digging it out.”

Ten years ago Keevers was diagnosed with essential thrombocythaemia – a blood disorder that results in clotting and haemorrhaging.

“I believe that it is not just the cancers,” Malouf says, “it has also affected their immune system. There is a number of people who have died from autoimmune disease, there is a number of girls who have had recurrent miscarriages. There is one girl who had recurrent miscarriages and then she developed cancer. And she lived there at the time when she was exposed to this black sand.”

Malouf believes it is possible that the remediation three decades ago wasn’t done to standards expected today. “I think the health department realises it was signed off by them in the ’80s and the job wasn’t done that well. We have evidence that black sand is still in backyards.”

Ken Kingsford, one of the  men who conducted the testing, has strongly defended his performance in the community newspaper Tweed Valley Weekly.

“I am more than confident I did a thorough job in my investigation of the area, which was part of a larger investigation of a number of sites in the region,” he said.

“Dr Malouf’s prime motivation is not the health of residents, it is stopping this development near his home, and he is trying to use scare tactics to do so.”

Despite a number of unreturned calls to North Coast Public Health Unit director Paul Corben, The Saturday Paper was unable to get a comment. However, NCPHU has elsewhere continued to insist that the area was “adequately” cleaned up in the 1980s and that there is insufficient evidence for a formal cancer cluster investigation. Corben recently told ABC Radio: “This rough 30-odd cancers of a range of different sorts, in 30-odd dwellings, over an indeterminate period doesn’t really help us.”

NSW Greens MLC Jan Barham has tabled a list of questions and concerns in the state parliament.

“In the ’80s they recognised the risk and cleaned up to the best of the standards that were in place at that time, but it wasn’t thorough in the sense that we know today,” she says. “The safe levels are now a quarter of what they used to be.”

She is supportive of Rowe commissioning independent local soil tests.

Cr Longland says that the planned housing development will require a range of studies “before one sod is turned”. But radiation is not in the assessment guidelines. “The radiation issue is not one that is accepted by health authorities. They are saying the background incidents of cancer in Mooball are the same as other communities. What Dr Malouf is doing, and will probably achieve, is some further evidence to determine once and for all if this is an issue or not.”

Residents such as Ron Marshall now await the results of soil tests they believe will confirm a public health disaster.

“If we can get tests done and this option says there are no problems with radiation, then it is all sweet,” Malouf says. “That is a great outcome. But I don’t believe that is going to happen.

“If it turns out that the extreme scenario is true – that is, that there is significant radiation in these properties that is toxic to humans – and the Tweed Shire Council, the health department and the sandmining companies have all ticked the box that it is safe, well hello, there will be another asbestos action.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 4, 2016 as "Shifting sands". Subscribe here.

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