David Fickling in Sydney Sunday September 29, 2002 The Observer
Cyril Hunter’s skin was bleached white by the time he died, but his only complaint on the night of his death was that he had eaten too much and felt bloated.
A respected member of the Aboriginal community in Derby, Western Australia, he had been suffering ill-health for three years, but was known in town as a tough, sturdy man. Few expected him to drop dead of a heart attack at the age of 33.
Campaigners say that Hunter’s is just one of up to 24 deaths caused by a controversial weed-spraying programme in northwestern Australia’s Kimberley region between 1975 and 1985.
After more than 20 years of denial, the West Australian government last week finally admitted responsibility for health problems connected to herbicides used in the programme. But compensation for those affected, and for the families of the dead, is still no nearer.
It was an apparently well-intentioned plan. Foreign weeds growing in the unspoilt Kimberley would be eradicated by teams of local workers, bringing employment to one of Australia’s most backward areas.
Teams of workers spent up to two weeks at a time camping in the bush around the Fitzroy and Ord rivers and spraying weeds with the herbicide 2,4,5-T. ‘We were living and breathing and sleeping in that stuff,’ recalls Ron Delvin, who led one of the work-teams. ‘It got everywhere.’
The herbicide is one of the main components of Agent Orange and has been linked to health problems since the early 1970s.
‘It’s pretty horrifying,’ says Western Australia’s Agriculture Minister, Kim Chance. ‘They were getting bathed in this crap all day.’
The most worrying question to emerge is whether the herbicide they were using was normal 2,4,5-T at all. Stored in leaky, unmarked, 200-litre used fuel drums, the batch used from 1975 was darker and stickier than employees were used to.
Use of Agent Orange in Vietnam was rapidly wound down in the late 1960s because of concern about its health impacts, but thousands of tonnes are believed to have entered the international market illegally.
Chance is quite clear about why the scandal has failed to come out until now. ‘It’s been covered up,’ he says.
The weeds grew back in a couple of years. The people involved in the programme have not recovered so easily.