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New South Wales: former asbestos mine workers who have won a 25 year battle to stay on at Baryulgil will be provided with new accommodation

ELLEN FANNING: In northern New South Wales they are burying the town of Baryulgil. Home to an Aboriginal community, the town became synonymous with death because of an open cut asbestos mine developed on its doorstep.

When the danger from the mine became known, successive governments tried to move residents out of the contaminated area but the Aboriginal community refused to move from the land. Well, now they have won their 25-year fight to stay. The contaminants are being buried and a new town is growing above the deadly dust.

Ginny Stein travelled to Baryulgil for AM. Her report begins at the old mine site with Neil Walker, one of 11 former miners who has won compensation for fatal asbestos-related illnesses.

NEIL WALKER: This is the old mill site here where we are standing. The old quarry site there down with all the water. It would be about 180 feet deep there. You can see some of it up there. See it amongst those trees, that blue-looking stuff? That's some of the tailings out of the mine. I can look down there and I can see a lot of my old mates still working there.

GINNY STEIN: Do you ever come here and think about it?

NEIL WALKER: No. I stay away from the place now.

GINNY STEIN: Neil Walker who worked at the mine for 25 years, much of that time as a powder monkey. Working without masks or other safety equipment, he'd blast the asbestos out of the quarry. At no time was he warned of the dangers, and only towards the end of his time as a miner was he provided with a mask. Twelve years ago he was diagnosed with asbestosis. He is now 62 years old and has been told he can't expect to live long.

NEIL WALKER: I've got nothing there to support my chest now, so when I am breathing this, you can see the chest coming out, sticking out like a racing pigeon. When I cough it comes out about four inches.

GINNY STEIN: Baryulgil must mean a hell of a lot to you to continue to want to stay here considering you know what's gone on in the past, you know that it's going to kill you, having worked here and lived here, you still want to stay. Why is that?

NEIL WALKER: It's not going to make any difference to me where I go. If they send me to the moon now I am still going to die. I am quite happy where I am. Here a lot of people talk about the Aboriginal heritage and culture, well, this is our area here. So that's it.

GINNY STEIN: Neil Walker. The dangers of asbestos were well known during the later life of the mine but workers were never told. For 35 years the community lived in the shadow of the mine. Dust blew over the town, tailings were used to fill children's sandpits, to top-soil the dirt roads, and in the early days, hessian bags used to cart asbestos around, were taken home, made into blankets and to plug holes in the homes the community built itself.

A few years ago, union bans were placed on truck drivers entering the community as the town was considered a health hazard, but now, those who refuse to move are being rewarded. ATSIC and the New South Wales Government is spending money on doing up the town to make it safe and to build new homes.

Neil Walker and his wife Linda are one of four families getting a new home and hope to move in by Christmas. Their new home is right behind the old. The experts moved in when the electricity was turned off, and with his family around him, the past was demolished.

Jimmy Budd is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission's regional chairman.

JIMMY BUDD: Well, I am quite happy to see it get pulled down because the one behind it is the one we have been fighting for - the new ones. And I am as happy as what Uncle Neil and his wife are, for the whole place really, but to see this one go. We have had that many meetings and fights and finally we won and it's all happened.

GINNY STEIN: Tully this is your father's house; you're filming, watching it being demolished. What do you think about the fact that it is coming down?

TULLY WALKER: I am just grateful that dad and mum have lived long enough to get a new house because in the last couple of years we have lost a few people in the community.

GINNY STEIN: What do you reckon about your grandad's house?

UNIDENTIFIED: Sad, sad. [...]

GINNY STEIN: Are you upset about it?


GINNY STEIN: It has been a long time coming. What has he said to you about it?

UNIDENTIFIED: He told us how long he was waiting for it and all this, and it's sort of like [...] and I am just upset to see the old house get pulled down.

GINNY STEIN: Neil, you're watching your house come down; that's that then.

NEIL WALKER: Yes, that's it, now. It makes me feel a bit sad but in one respect we've got the new one here to go into, so a bit of compensation.

GINNY STEIN: So you can walk over the first place you lived in, over the second place you lived in and now into your grand palace behind.

NEIL WALKER: I can always stand there in one certain section and say this was my bedroom ten years ago or so - if I live that long.

It makes you feel sorry but as the world says, it's progress. It's something that we've wanted for many years anyway, so in one respect I am quite happy to see that it did happen while I was still well enough to enjoy it.

ELLEN FANNING: Neil Walker, who hopes to move into his new house by Christmas, and the reporter was Ginny Stein.