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Asbestos ‘likely dumped for decades’ sparks health fears in remote Aboriginal community


A Traditional owner in Barunga inspects asbestos in Barunga. Photo: Traditional owners in Barunga say the legacy asbestos has been discarded in various states (ABC News: Tom Maddocks)

Northern Territory Government representatives have visited a remote Indigenous community amid fears residents, including children, have been exposed to asbestos, likely dumped there decades ago.

Key points:

  • A local resident said he first raised the Barunga asbestos issue with authorities about a year ago
  • A “whole-of-government” approach is expected to soon be launched, based on the results of the recent testing
  • Last year a union report found asbestos exposure in the NT had become an “epidemic”

On Thursday, Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Logistics workers and an asbestos contractor mapped the location and took samples of suspected asbestos material on the outskirts of Barunga, about 400 kilometres south-east of Darwin.

The department is now testing the material to verify the extent of the problem, which it said is probably a result of legacy dumping dating back a number of years.

Resident Conway Bush, who lives with his family in between the community and the site, said he was cleaning up his shed when he stumbled across asbestos in discarded pipelines, and then discovered a swathe of ageing building materials nearby.

Barunga resident Conway Bush looks into the camera. Photo: Resident Conway Bush said he had first raised the issue with authorities about a year ago (ABC News: Tom Maddocks)

Mr Bush, who has a dangerous goods licence and dealt with asbestos in a former role with Katherine Town Council, said he first raised the issue about a year ago.

“It took a while and they’re starting to register now because we’re three weeks away from Barunga Festival,” said Mr Bush, adding that the community is preparing for an influx of thousands of festival-goers for the popular annual event.

“I don’t want to point any fingers… but it should be cleaned up.

“The more I investigated the more I found and I went out and took photos… NLC [Northern Land Council] knows, and the Government, and they’re coming out to try and fix the problem.

“But the thing is, it shouldn’t be left out on country, or dumped illegally, for that matter.”

Asbestos littered among demolished housing and rubbish Photo: The asbestos is discarded among demolished housing and rubbish (ABC News: Tom Maddocks)

Mr Bush said he’s worried for the health of his children, and other kids in the community.

“My people like to walk to go fishing and… kids play on that walk. They play along as they go. They’re innocent children,” he said.

The NLC said the issue was raised at a consultation with Mr Bush and it was passed on to the Infrastructure Department, who are now responsible for cleaning up asbestos in the NT.

‘It’s not treated as important’

In a statement, the Department said it would coordinate a “whole of government response” based on the test results.

“The suspected asbestos material is likely a result of legacy dumping dating back a number of years,” it said.

The Roper Gulf Regional Council said it had only just become aware of the issue, but declined to comment.

Asbestos sheeting sitting in Barunga, NT. Photo: Exposure to asbestos can lead to serious conditions like mesothelioma (ABC News: Tom Maddocks)

Legacy dumping of asbestos is a big problem, said Andrew Ramsay, chair of the Queensland-based Asbestos Disease Support Society.

“It’s just amazing that it’s still treated like it’s not an important issue up there in the Territory,” said Mr Ramsay, who last year travelled to Tennant Creek to investigate claims of asbestos exposure.

“It just seems to be an attitude that it’s out of sight, out of mind… the last thing you would want, even on your [worst] enemy, is to come down with an asbestos-related disease, because it is a horrible, horrible way to die.”

Last year, similar concerns about asbestos exposure in remote NT communities surfaced in Tennant Creek and Yuendumu.

A report previously found dumped asbestos in and around remote Indigenous communities is a widespread and costly problem, and the CFMEU claimed asbestos exposure in the Northern Territory had become an epidemic.

A job opportunity?

Mr Bush said very few people in Barunga know about the dangers of asbestos, and the dump offers an opportunity to train and employ locals to clear asbestos on country.

A photo of asbestos in the remote community of Barunga Photo: Residents say they are concerned for the health of children in the community (ABC News: Tom Maddocks)

“Aboriginal people should have some sort of education within the communities that this stuff does exist… and where it’s been dumped,” he said.

“They should give us Indigenous people that’s living here a chance to do a course, or go and do it through a small business so that we can all achieve one goal.

“It prompted me to think, well, what about all the other communities? All the countrymen, they don’t know what asbestos looks like or what material it is in, or even in the house, for that matter.

“But it will give people the inside knowledge on what is asbestos, and how dangerous it is.”



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