History and Background
The asbestos mine had operated at Baryulgil since 1944 and relied on the local Aboriginal community for its workforce. The workers were not informed of the dangers posed by asbestos even after owners were aware of the dangers. The mine closed in April 1979 but by this time many in the community were experiencing significant health problems.
The Baryulgil community became aware of the impact of the mine after a series of programs produced by ABC journalist Matt Peacock in 1997. The series included a documentary on Baryulgil and this gave rise to increased media interest.
In 1981 The Select Committee of the Legislative Assembly of NSW recommended an investigation to determine the incidence of asbestos related disease in the Baryulgil community.
After the 1984 release of the “Effects of Asbestos on the Baryulgil Community” by the House of Representatives “Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs “, the Commonwealth government decided to put some of its recommendations into practice.
One of the recommendations was that a medical facility be established to monitor, diagnose and treat those affected by exposure to asbestos. The ex-miners then began lobbying for the establishment of an Aboriginal Medical Service.
In April 1990 ATSIC Commissioner Mr. Sol Bellear and Mr Ian Watson from ATSIC Regional Office Lismore approached Mrs Gloria Stachan to assist in the setting up of a Medical Clinic as recommended by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs.
A meeting was held in Grafton in April 1990 attended by many of the ex-miners and their family members. The meeting agreed that the most suitable location for the clinic would be Grafton as many of those affected had moved from Baryulgil. Board members were also elected at this meeting with Mr Len Brown becoming the first Chairperson of the new organisation.
At this meeting the Board resolved to set up as a community controlled health service. It has long been acknowledged that community controlled health services are the best providers of health care to the Aboriginal Community. It was also resolved that the new service would provide health care to the Aboriginal People residing in the Page Electorate,
The new organisation would be called Bulgarr Ngaru Medical Aboriginal Corporation. Bulgarr Ngaru is “Big River” in the Yaegl language.
1991 Board members: Len Brown, Cedric Robinson, Kenneth Gordon, Marvis Laurie, Neil Walker, Linda Walker, Della Gordon, Pauline Gordon, Lillian Williams, Norrie Williams.
Prior to official registration of the organisation the Board had resolved that the 5 Aboriginal Communities of the Clarence Valley i.e. Malabugilmah, Baryulgil, Grafton, Maclean and Yamba would have equal representation of members. The members in tur would elect their representatives on the Board.
The Aims of the organisation were to:
- Improve the health status of the Aboriginal Communities in the Clarence Valley through the implementation of appropriate medical care and disease prevention program.
- Involve Aboriginal people in the planning and provision of health care for their community.
- To provide ongoing asbestos screening and referral for Aboriginal community members.
- To train and employ Aboriginal people.
The Early Years:
Funding was received in September 1990, which enabled the Board to proceed with leasing a building, employing staff and purchase equipment and supplies. Initially there were 6 positions funded which included CEO/Finance Officer, GP, Registered Nurse, Receptionist, Male and Female Health Workers.
Dr Van Gend was employed as the physician responsible for the screening, diagnosis and treatment of ex-miners and those affected by exposure to asbestos. BNMAC began seeing patients in August 1991.
BNMAC continues to provide screening for services to those affected by exposure to asbestos. On a number of occasions BNMAC organised for Solicitors to meet with those who were exposed to asbestos at Baryulgil. Unfortunately, the Solicitors could not at until medical diagnosis was made and this continues to prove difficult. Ex-miners were referred to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and the Dust Diseases Board in Sydney but very few were successful in gaining a diagnosis that would enable them to claim compensation.
BNMAC lobbied the Dust Disease Board in Sydney to visit Baryulgil and Grafton to provide screening. The Board provided screening days at both places at different times but unfortunately they never followed up on those visits.
Sadly, many of those affected by their exposure to asbestos, including a number of our board members, have passed away.