With a film crew from the 7.30 report, on Friday 1 September 2016 I visited the site of the former Baryulgil asbestos mine, located in the far northern coast of NSW. The mine was formerly owned by James Hardie Industries who began mining chrysotile (white asbestos) in the small aboriginal community of Baryulgil in 1953. The mine continued operating until 1979. James Hardie sold the mine to Woodsreef Mines Limited in 1976.
It is estimated that approximately 350 Aboriginal people were employed during this period to work in the mine and mill. The working conditions in the mine and mill were primitive. Workers worked surrounded by a thick haze of asbestos dust that coated everything so that the workers could barely see those working beside them. Aboriginal workers and their families lived in crude man made shacks at the township, Baryulgil Square close to the mull. The shacks had no electricity, running water or sewage system. During milling operations, a thick cloud of dust blew over the town making its way to the crude homes and to the school.
Asbestos tailings (mill residue) from the mine were spread around the township and used to fill in potholes on the roads, to resurface the roads around the township, to surface the ground around the houses and play pits for children. The tailings were used at Baryulgil Public School to surface the playground and the sports courts.
The legacy of Baryulgil lives on. Many of the workers have contracted and died of asbestos disease.
I visited Baryulgil with a client of mine who lived at Baryulgil from the age of 2 years of age in 1962, until 1979. In 2016, 37 years after leaving the township, at the age of 54, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma. He is the first person exposed as a chiled at Baryulgil to be diagnosed with the disease.
My client recalls as a child jumping on piles of asbestos tailings and playing around in it like snow. As a kid he mixed the tailing with water to make pancakes and threw them at the other kids. He recalls being so hungry that at time he and his brothers ate the asbestos pancakes. He also mixed the tailings with water to make balls which were put at the end of sticks and flicked at his siblings. At school he played game such a marbles in the asbestos tailings. On weekends, he and his siblings and friends played hide-and-go-seek and Cowboys and Indians around the asbestos mine.
My client has commenced proceedings against the State of New South Wales in relation to his exposure at the Baryulgil Public School. Although the mine was owned by James Hardie, the James Hardie (Civil Liability) Act 2005 only allows the company to be sued as a last resort. His claim will likely come to hearing within the next 3 months.