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 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 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 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.
”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.”
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.