By Janine Williams
When Charles (Paul) Moran became aware that there were health problems related to asbestos mining, he asked his white bosses would they provide protective clothing for the miners at the Baryulgil asbestos mine. Moran says he was assured that he need not worry, as "the asbestos only affected white people, and not blacks".
The mine continued to operate long after the dangers of asbestos were widely known.
Like many of the mineworkers who worked the open pit at Baryulgil near Grafton, NSW, from the time it opened in 1942 until it closed in 1979, Charles developed an asbestos-related condition.
He started work at the mine in 1961, living at Baryulgil with his wife Rita and their two sons. Two daughters were born while they lived there.
Although Charles, now of Goonellabah, worked at the mine for just four years, he, Rita and two of their five children carry an asbestos legacy which will plague them for the rest of their lives.
While it has not been confirmed, the family is concerned that another family member has the signs of an asbestos disease.
Many Baryulgil asbestos miners have died of asbestos-related conditions. Many more and their families are suffering lung diseases as a consequence of their days at Baryulgil.
In the eyes of the wider, predominantly white, community, the Baryulgil issue has died.
But Karen Moran, who was born while her parents were living at Baryulgil, is determined not to let the issue die. She knows it is not going to be an easy task, but she has taken up a determined campaign from the lounge room of the family home. Her filing cabinet is a cardboard box, her only weapons are pen and paper. Her only assistance to date has been secretarial and travelling assistance from the North Coast Regional Aboriginal Lands Council.
Karen has gone into battle for her people, organising group
action for the victims of Baryulgil asbestos mine — the former miners, wives, widows and children.
She is also concerned about the former Baryulgil families now dispersed throughout Australia. Many, she says, may be unaware that their illnesses are related to the time they spent at Baryulgil.
Karen says the work and living conditions were appalling. The black workers, who had been denied protective gear such as shoes and masks, often just wore shorts while mining the asbestos.
These people breathed the air containing asbestos dust, brushed the asbestos fibres from the meal table, drank and washed their clothes in asbestos-contaminated water.
The kids played in the contaminated tailings from the mine, which had been used in the sand pits at school and driveways at their homes.
"The people were consuming asbestos through the air and the water", Karen said.
The people continued to live and work in the town, unaware that the tiny, sharp asbestos fibres could be lodging in their lungs. Ultimately, affected lungs can have difficulty in supplying oxygen to the heart. Asbestos is also known to cause cancer.
An asbestos-related illness can take 15 to 20, even 30 years to show up.
Karen says that the majority of the miners were black, many of these mining raw asbestos.
With the closure of the mine, many people moved away, including the Moran family, apparently in good health.
It was several years later that Charles developed a bad raspy cough as a result of scarring of the lungs.
Karen says it has also been diagnosed that her mother, Rita, has asbestosis. "Mum has been ailing for near on 10 years", Karen said.
Then in 1989, a CAT scan showed pleural plaque on Karen's lungs.
While they have not been diagnosed as having asbestos-related diseases, the family believe that sons Charles and Bevin have also been affected. They recognise the signs.
Of the people who formerly lived and worked at Baryulgil, 85 were tested in 1989. Karen said 14 were diagnosed as having asbestos-related conditions.
Karen says there would be literally hundreds of people who need to be tested. Her objective is to make the Baryulgil workers and their families aware of their problems, so that they can seek help and get just compensation for them.
She says many of those people associated with the mine may be ill with asbestos-related disease, but not realise the cause because the signs of asbestosis can be difficult to detect, especially if their doctor is unaware of the possibility.
After an inquiry into the Baryulgil asbestos mine, a health centre was built at Grafton offering services to victims. Small amounts of compensation, all believed to be less than $20,000, were paid out through the Dust Diseases Board.
Workers in a parallel situation at an asbestos mine at Wittenoom in Western Australia won a long battle for the recognition of asbestos-related diseases and compensation for the illnesses related to their work. In 1989, 201 former Wittenoom workers received a mass compensation payout of $18.4 million for what was considered to be Australia's worst industrial disaster.
But still the Baryulgil workers and their families wait; the deaths continue. The Baryulgil miners and their families have virtually become the forgotten people.
The NSW Asbestos Ex-Miners Aboriginal Corporation, representing the Baryulgil people, has been formed in an attempt to take group action for justice and compensation. Anyone who believes they may have been affected by asbestos at Baryulgil or who wants to offer support should contact the public officer of the group, Karen Moran, on (066) 24 2174.
Abridged from Koori Mail.