Agent Orange survivor Carl Drysdale slams government inaction
WHILE the colour photographs of his Kimberley days may be dog-eared and fading, the years do not extinguish the fire in Carl Drysdale’s belly.
The 72-year-old Pinjarra grandfather is “still fighting the machine” over the appalling ill-health and the suspicious deaths of dozens of once-healthy men who sprayed the banned 2,4,5-T during government weed eradication programs across WA’s North West in the 1970s and ’80s. It is a scandal that refuses to die, unlike the many men it affected, fuelled by decades-long government inaction and a mean-spirited bureaucracy.
“I look through the old photos and they’re mostly all dead, generally with cancer,” he tells The Sunday Times. “Dying in their 30s and 40s. Most of them are gone.”
But not all of them.
This Tuesday, yet another chapter of the long-running saga opens, with four other Agriculture Protection Board workers from the Kimberley taking their compensation claims back to the courts.
Their lawyers want WorkCover to finally acknowledge the appalling hardships that have befallen them and the wider Kimberley communities, especially in small, close-knit outback towns such as Derby.
“The weed-spraying program has haunted families in the West Kimberley as the preponderance of graves of workers, their children and grandchildren testify,” Chapman’s Lawyers’ Tony Mullen said.
It has been more than 40 years since the young butcher from Perth headed north after getting a job as the West Kimberley district officer for the Agricultural Protection Board.
He was in charge of teams of 15 men — many of them indigenous — who would go bush for up to 10 days, sleeping in swags, cooking their own tucker and enjoying the occasional bath in waterholes.
Armed with spray packs, their job was to eradicate the dreaded Parkinsonian tree, one of the many weeds threatening the burgeoning Kimberley pastoral industry.
What they didn’t know was that they were spraying the dangerous herbicide 2,4,5-T, a hazardous chemical that when mixed with equal parts of 2,4-D was better known as Agent Orange, dropped by US forces during the Vietnam war to defoliate jungles, kill crops and flush out the Viet Cong.
Years before occupational health and safety was a workplace reality and rarely wearing any protective clothing in the searing heat of the Kimberley, the APB workers literally covered themselves with the stuff, day in, day out.
It wasn’t long before the headaches began, and the rashes and sores that never healed. Then they started dying. Young men. Strong men. Men who didn’t know what sickness was.
One death in particular hit Mr Drysdale hard.
Cyril Hunter was just 33 when he died. A big, robust and proud indigenous man, he worked as a sprayer for the APB for seven years under Mr Drysdale.
“I remember talking to him once while he was sitting at the bottom of some stairs where we used to go to get paid,” he said. “He told me that a couple of mates had gone upstairs to pick up his wages.
“It then dawned on me that he couldn’t even get up the stairs. He was so buggered. He died of ventricle failure, a well-known symptom of heavy exposure to the chemical. He was a young man … there were so many of them.”
Appalled by clear anecdotal evidence of a spiralling death rate among APB employees and pushed into action by media, then-premier Geoff Gallop launched the Armstrong Report, led by world-renowned cancer epidemiologist Bruce Armstrong.
While he stopped short of concluding “beyond reasonable doubt” that the spraying program was directly linked to the alarming cancer rate, Dr Armstrong did find that APB workers might have suffered an increased risk of cancer because of their work.
The Gallop government then urged all APB workers and their dependants to file compensation claims. It said they would receive preferential treatment and be expedited through the system.
That was 14 years ago. Some claims have been settled over the years, but many have not.
Mr Drysdale refuses to let the matter die. He is determined to see it through to the end.
“It’s not just one government that pushes back, it’s been all of them,” he says on the seemingly never-ending drama. “They have been stuffing us around again and again. Then all of a sudden, a new government comes in and it starts all over from scratch.
“I know what their strategy is, ‘Let’s just wait, we’ll outlast them’. They are waiting for us to die. Well, I’m not going to give them that pleasure.”
Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan would not be drawn on whether successive State governments had dragged their feet over the issue, only saying that she hoped the matters “can be brought to a conclusion soon”.
She said eight former APB workers had received payments for cancer claims that had been facilitated through the State-based worker’s compensation system.
Those confidential settlements took into account future medical expenses.
Ms MacTiernan said applications for non-cancer claims could still be submitted for assessment.