THE last remnants of a poison linked to cancer and birth defects are buried in dozens of drums near the Yarram Golf Club. Former Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) national vice-president Albert Littler this week revealed two drums of Agent Orange mysteriously disappeared and were buried at the site before the union could take samples from them during a 2003 investigation.
Mr Littler said the union was “trying to pin the Agent Orange link on to what was allegedly imported into Australia”. “They believed the surplus stock from Vietnam was bought up by the president of Singapore. It’s alleged a company in Western Australia imported the stuff and two drums were shipped to Victoria,” Mr Littler said.
Mr Littler could not say whether the two drums in question were the ones hastily buried at the site. “We’re not sure what’s in the drums, to be honest. But why were the drums dumped there?” he asked.
“We had monitoring devices down there – but don’t forget this is years and years later – where the depot was. The tests we conducted came back inconclusive. But some of the boys said: ‘We were suddenly asked to bury two drums in Yarram. Take them out of the depot and bury them in an isolated site.
“We then had a meeting under the ACTU (Australian Council of Trade Unions), with the Minister responsible at the time and said we wanted the drums dug up and removed and we wanted to test them. They wanted to know where they were but they didn’t want us to be there.” Mr Littler said the union wasn’t “game enough to dig them up ourselves”
“If they were as toxic as we suspected, the union would have been held liable if we’d disturbed them and they’d ruptured. There was a stream near these drums. So they’re still where they were left,” he said.
Slater and Gordon would eventually deem the potential cost of a class action on behalf of affected workers against the importer of the two drums too expensive. Mr Littler said many of the 30 or so workers examined by a Trades Hall Health Centre nurse had “various sorts of cancers and some rashes still persisting.”
He believes the lack of success of the investigation led to disappointment for the workers, “because it was inconclusive for them”. Talking to the Standard this week, Pat Read, a former Lands Department worker said up to 100 empty but uncleaned drums were also buried at the site during his time working for one of the two Yarram crews.
Mr Read was pensioned off in 1985 after suffering a heart attack. He does not blame his exposure to Agent Orange for his health problems, but said a lot of his colleagues were no longer alive.
“The CFMEU came out and I knew exactly where the drums would be. We probed down and found them. I asked them if they wanted them dug up and they said, ‘No, we’ll leave it at that.’” he said. Mr Read worked at the Lands Department from 1965, but said he was also there for a time about six years earlier.
He had heard no more about Agent Orange or its effects since the union left town all those years ago. “Someone was saying, ‘You’ll all get compensated on this.’ But it never came to anything,” he said.
“There’s not too many of us left, and only me and another bloke alive from the older workers. The bosses never said anything about the spray, but we knew it wasn’t right. When you’re mixing 2,4- D and 2,4,5-T and all those together, something had to give, didn’t it?”