In 2006, the late Bernie Banton’s advocacy eventually resulted in an agreement between James Hardie Industries and the New South Wales Government, to fund a trust that would pay compensation to victims of the asbestos industry; however, this agreement did not include the company’s mine at Baryulgil.
Now, following one former resident, 54-year-old Floyd Laurie, being diagnosed with the incurable asbestos cancer, mesothelioma, the NSW Education Department is being sued.
Dust diseases specialist Tanya Segelov, who is also a member of the federal government’s Asbestos Safety and Eradication Council, is representing Mr Laurie, who “was exposed to asbestos contained in mine tailings from the nearby mine that were deposited in the school grounds and used for resurfacing sporting facilities and as part of the playground”.
“Mr Laurie lived in Baryulgil between 1962 and 1979. He attended Baryulgil Public School from kindergarten until year six and later worked at the school,” Ms Segelov said.
“He has never worked in industries where asbestos is prevalent.”
She said that James Hardie sold the mine to Marlew Mining in 1976 (the mine was closed in 1979) and, as a result of the agreement struck in 2006, James Hardie is “a defendant of last resort”.
“If anyone else can be sued they have to be sued first,” Ms Segelov said.
She said the Department of Education “had a duty to protect its students from harm”.
“There’s no question that the first person I would have sued was James Hardie but, faced with the situation, I had to look at anyone else we could sue.
“I think we will be successful, but I don’t think [the Department of Education] is the primarily responsible party.”
Speaking on behalf of her brother Floyd, who is undergoing chemotherapy, Yamba resident Di Randall said: “We used to dive into that asbestos, we used to play around it.
“Not only that, we had to spread it around the school – it was everywhere: in the volleyball court, around our bubblers, and we had to fill pot holes – it was everywhere around classrooms.
“When we made a cubby house we spread it out; we made mud pies with the dirt and a lot of it had asbestos in it.”
Ms Segelov said: “One of the real problems with Baryulgil is that the [the government] has never properly followed up at that community.
“People have died and no one knows why. They haven’t given people autopsies.
“I don’t think anyone has a true idea of the extent of the disease from that community, and I think that’s a terrible failure.”
Ms Randall said that some of her family and friends have also suffered as a result of their exposure.
“I’ve seen the effects it has on families. I’ve lived though it before and now I’m going through it again with my brother,” she said.
Her late father was paid some compensation by the Dust Diseases Board “about 10 to 15 years ago”.
“It was never for mesothelioma, but it was asbestos related,” Ms Randall said. “Dad was healthy and fine, but within a year he was the quarter of the man he was … and some of my uncles were like that … in less than a year they were gone.”
Ms Segelov said James Hardie “knew of the dangers back in the ’30s and continued making asbestos products until the mid 1980s”.
“Mesothelioma was first described in medical literature in early 1960s and, by the mid 1960s, there was a lot of evidence in medical and industry journals [that mesothelioma] can be caused by small exposures to asbestos,” she said.
People, who are exposed, however, only have a three per cent lifetime risk of contracting mesothelioma. “Thirty-seven years is the average latency period,” Ms Segelov said.