1980/2012 April: Toxic Spill near Laurieton (NSW). Pesticide: DDT

Mystery illness recalls 1980 toxic spill

April 19, 2012
Workers unearth 1980 toxic site

Road workers have fallen sick after digging up the Port Macquarie site of a toxic truck accident in 1980, says Bob Higgins of the Pacific Highway Upgrade.

FIVE road workers have recovered after exposure to a mystery toxic chemical they unearthed while building a new section of the Pacific Highway near Port Macquarie.

The workers were struck by nausea, vomiting and sore throats after excavations uncovered a patch of greyish clay that became streaked with orange after it was exposed to the air.

The site, between Herons Creek and Stills Road near the town of Laurieton, is notorious as the location of one of Australia’s most controversial spills of toxic chemicals and radioactive material.

In 1980 a truck rolled over while carrying several tonnes of the insecticide DDT, two drums of radioactive material and some other chemicals. Some of the DDT was apparently buried on site. It sparked a chain of events that saw allegations of a ”massive cover-up” by a local doctor who claimed 13 people involved in the clean-up fell ill, and a parliamentary investigation.

Although the affected workers were exposed nearly three weeks ago and have since returned to work, the cause of the illness remains unknown and a 50-metre exclusion zone has been imposed around the construction site, NSW Roads and Maritime Services said.

The Roads Minister, Duncan Gay, said there was no sign of radioactivity, though further tests would be undertaken.

The NSW Environment Protection Authority said initial tests for chemicals had proved inconclusive, while experts from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation are travelling to Laurieton to test for radioactivity.

”When we started the excavation of this cutting, a certain material was exposed,” said the site’s project manager, Bob Higgins. ”It was a grey-coloured, clay-ey substance that, when it was exposed to the air, got orange streaks on it, and then there were some fumes that came from it.”

The level of contamination, and whether it poses any risk, remains unknown.

The review of environmental factors completed before digging began said buried material from the chemical spill should be classified as relatively innocuous ”inert waste”, and suitable for burial in landfill.

The apparent effect of the toxic chemical on workers prompted the NSW opposition and the Greens to call for an investigation into risks and work practices.

”The report into contamination at the site played down the presence of dangerous substances and so has the government, yet workers are seriously sick,” said a Greens MP, Cate Faehrmann. ”How could a site as toxic as this have a highway built through it?”

The contamination was caused on December 4, 1980, when truck driver Larry Earle was taking his toxic cargo north from Sydney to Brisbane on behalf of a company called Century Geophysical Corporation, which was deregistered in 1999.

Two cars collided in front of Mr Earle’s truck, killing one of the occupants, 23-year-old John Parsons of Grafton. Mr Earle swerved sharply, and managed to avoid serious injury himself, but his vehicle rolled.

The first two police officers on the scene were senior constables Robert Deards and Terry Clifton, who remained there for 12 hours, handling two drums of radioactive material, and handling burst bags containing DDT.

”When I went home that night my uniform, which was usually navy blue, was white,” Mr Deards told the Herald.

”It was impregnated with bloody DDT powder. I had blood tests three months after the accident and I was still nine times over the maximum level of DDT in my system.”

Mr Clifton complained of being ill, of rapidly losing eight kilograms in weight, and having difficulty sleeping. Mr Deards felt ill and two months later started having fainting spells.

”It was a bloody terrible thing,” he said. ”In those days police weren’t supplied with protective clothing. We had nothing in our police cars, no gloves or masks, and at the end of the day no one gave a rat’s arse if we were sick or not.”

NSW Health tested the eight police officers who had helped with the clean-up, and found no evidence of radiation poisoning, the NSW Health Commission chairman, Roderick McEwin, said.

A Port Macquarie doctor, John McKay, was contacted by 11 other people who reported similar symptoms. He accused the state government of engaging in a ”massive cover-up” and alleged the people were suffering from radiation poisoning.

The matter was investigated by the government. No radiation exposure was proved, and the two drums of radioactive material were apparently not breached.