Sunday, August 23, 2009

Australia's James Hardie - close to evil

It's in the book, out now.

As the author Matt Peacock explained to me over a cup of coffee in Parliament House, you can trace every stage of James Hardie's asbestos production process and find a trail of death that is continuing still, in places most people - quite reasonably - don't suspect.

Such as carpet.

The hessian bags that carried the asbestos James Hardie transported were subsequently sold to carpet companies (among others) who used them to make carpet underlay.

Only now, two or three decades later, is that carpet being ripped up and replaced.

The Australian workers or families who rip up their carpets are being exposed to asbestos fibres and a high risk of a painful lingering death.

Here's the extract from my friend Matt Peacock's formidable book, printed in the Weekend Australian:

Bernie Banton, the former James Hardie employee who died from cancer in 2007, became the public face of victims of the company's asbestos products but, as Matt Peacock writes, the company spread the risk across the community -- where it remains

IN late 2005 James Hardie's embattled chairwoman Meredith Hellicar spoke warmly to me of a letter of support she'd received from an elderly woman. "This wonderful 93-year-old woman ... was married to two James Hardie plant managers in a row," Hellicar said. "She said they both loved asbestos. One of her husbands lined their driveway with asbestos."

For Hellicar, the letter provided reassurance that she was continuing an honourable company tradition set by her predecessor John Reid and his family, one that reflected the best moral corporate behaviour. But what neither Hellicar, nor anyone else from Hardie, said publicly was that such innocuous-looking driveways might kill. They are yet another part of the deadly legacy kept secret from an unsuspecting public by a company determined to minimise its legal liabilities.

The corporate culture of deceit identified by the NSW special commission of inquiry headed by David Jackson QC in 2004 developed many decades ago and persists to this day. Hardie's victims will continue to accumulate because the company has never told the full truth about the asbestos hazards left in its wake. Some, quite literally, have been swept under the carpet.

Until the 1970s it had been common practice to build such domestic driveways, paths and garage floors using Hardie's asbestos waste. The company encouraged its employees to help themselves to the "fines", as it was called. The compacted waste still remains in people's driveways. I have seen one in a quiet suburban street bordering the old industrial area of Elizabeth in Adelaide, where the Hardie factory had produced its asbestos pipes and sheets. It had the appearance of concrete, with its grey colour and hard surface. Only a close examination at the edges revealed the telltale fraying fibres, glistening in the grime.

According to Neil Gilbert, the former Hardie engineer who established Hardie's dust extraction system and medical surveillance scheme before quitting in 1971, thousands of driveways would have been built this way, but he shrugged at the suggestion that something should be done about it.

"That's fate," he told me. "I know where there's one or two. It would take a massive amount of publicity to track them down. Most people wouldn't recognise them. You couldn't tell the difference between it and concrete."

One of Hardie's biggest fears has been that litigation against it could extend beyond simply paying for the deaths and injuries it has caused to cleaning up the dangerous materials it has left behind. "The establishment of a broadly defined duty to remediate, whether at common law or by statute, could have a catastrophic effect on the company," Hardie's litigation manager Wayne Attrill warned in 2001, just before the company shed its asbestos subsidiaries and moved offshore. The prospect of such claims for remediation also featured in the early discussions held by Hardie's counsel Peter Shafron and Michael Gill when they first canvassed the idea of separating the company's asbestos subsidiary. In the protracted battle with the NSW government that followed, Hardie extracted unique legal protection from just such a duty.

No one knows how many people have been exposed to lethal doses of Hardie's asbestos waste. What is certain is that many thousands could have been; what is equally certain is that the company has known that their lives have been endangered.

For Hardie, the driveways were part of a bigger problem. Thousands of tonnes of its asbestos waste were dispersed in all sorts of places: in rivers and creeks, on vacant blocks, on roadways, even on football ovals. Wherever fill was needed, Hardie's waste was available.

The practice was made even more dangerous because a large percentage of the waste came from moulded products such as pipes, which had contained the deadly brown and blue asbestos.

As a Hardie memo in 1977 about its Camellia factory in Sydney noted: "It is understood that our dust was a sought-after item and was even sold. It was particularly useful for light duty paths, garage floors and general filling.

"Our reject and broken scrap was also very useful as a filling for driveways, etc in many of the market gardens west of our factory."

Father John Boyle, whose father worked at the factory, remembered the asbestos driveway and garage floor from his family house near Parramatta. His mother, Molly, had helped his father lay the asbestos waste and for years later used to sweep the garage floor clean: "I know well what it looks like. It's a fibrous, powdery material that along with water becomes as hard as concrete. It was a cheap fill and in those days it probably wasn't seen to be so bad.

"It's good for 10 or 20 years, but then it breaks up, and that's when the fibres are released. From the mid-70s James Hardie knew about them but didn't warn people."

In fact Hardie had known long before that, but it was only during the 70s that it began to do anything about it. The company's reaction, as Boyle noted, was not to alert people to the dangers; instead, it set about quietly stopping the practice.

Boyle's mother died from mesothelioma. She had also been exposed to asbestos from her husband's overalls, but it seemed likely that her greatest exposure was from the driveway and garage floor. Hardie settled her compensation claim.

I asked Hellicar if she was concerned about the possible danger to the public, especially given that children could be exposed. She was quick to answer: "If you're saying, `Should James Hardie pay for a clear-up?' No, at the end of the day. And why no? Because we cannot be a bottomless pit.

"The fact of the matter is ... this was not some James Hardie conspiracy to foist a product on the world. Governments were there, companies were there. We all were party to this great new product and at some point we have to just all recognise there was a big mistake made about asbestos."

APART from the driveways and paths that employees and others were encouraged to construct, the company also had deposited bulk asbestos waste in a multitude of locations across the country.

I first became aware of the practice in 1978, when former Hardie engineer Fred Sandilands contacted me after my ABC radio series about the industry had aired and I helped publicise his story.

Sandilands was 49 and had worked at Hardie for most of his life. He had remarried in 1975 and left the company to start a new life in Singapore, where he got a job with Humes, another asbestos manufacturer. After a medical check-up at Humes he was told that he had mesothelioma. He called me just after he had returned to Australia.

He knew he was dying. He spoke calmly, but slowly, as one suffering a lot of pain. Sandilands expressed disbelief that the company for which he had felt so much affection could be so tough in its compensation negotiations with him. The enormity of the Hardie cover-up was dawning on him. As his death grew closer it weighed on his mind.

Sandilands had supervised the dumping of thousands of tonnes of asbestos waste throughout the suburbs surrounding Hardie's Sydney factory. When his story went public in the newspapers and on ABC TV, Hardie's chairman Reid circulated a letter to shareholders and staff because, he wrote, "unfortunately the facts have not always been presented in full or objectively". Under the heading "Setting the Record Straight", Hardie set out a response carefully crafted by its PR consultant, Bill Frew: "Because the small amount of asbestos fibres in our products is locked in by cement, it cannot escape into the atmosphere as dust, and therefore poses NO RISK TO HEALTH."

Behind the scenes, Hardie and the Health Commission were scrambling for cover. There were many more sites than the two mentioned. Frank Stewart, the NSW health minister, urged householders not to be alarmed. "Asbestos dust does pose a health hazard, but it requires exposure over a long period of time," he said soothingly and inaccurately. The government soon identified dump sites at other Sydney suburbs, among them North Rocks, Wentworthville, Granville, Silverwater, Homebush and Parramatta Park.

Early this decade, Hardie waste in Perth was still being dug up in the road and rail reserves at Burswood, where the company had dumped it from its nearby factory. Other landfill excavated from Goodwood Parade in Riverdale to help construct a new freeway was discovered to be "massively contaminated". West Australian health authorities expressed surprise but played down any possible dangers, expressing satisfaction that test results had demonstrated "no risk to public health".

Federal and state government authorities had failed to regulate the safe disposal of asbestos until the late 70s. Hardie had been able to exploit this omission.

The practice was the same throughout the country. Hardie knew the public was at risk. Its secret monitoring in Adelaide during November 1974 revealed that even 20 minutes after tipping had stopped, there was an asbestos dust count of 30 fibres per cubic centimetre. Hardie's nominal safe level of exposure for a worker during a shift in its factories at the time was four fibres per cubic centimetre, soon to be halved. Hardie's dust committee warned of "the harm that such an event could cause to the company's good public relations" if the news leaked out.

The number of people killed by Hardie products in the course of their work, whether in the company's factories or outside, was sooner or later likely to become public knowledge. So, too, was information about the products that had killed them.

Many at the top of the firm, though, were also aware of those less visible potential hazards, in places such as driveways and dumps, where most of those exposed would have no knowledge of its presence. Yet time and again Hardie directors and executives chose silence. One example starkly demonstrates the company's continuing failure to warn the public of a danger that still lingers, possibly in thousands of homes.

For many decades the millions of tonnes of raw asbestos shipped into Australia and transported from mines at Wittenoom in Western Australia and Woodsreef and Baryulgil in NSW were carried in hessian bags. Once the asbestos had been emptied from the bags, many millions were recycled for other uses. Cleaning the bags did not make them safe.

John Downes worked for the Active Bag Company, based near Sydney's Mascot airport, for about three years until 1965. Downes, who later developed asbestosis, remembered picking up hessian bags from Hardie's factory at Camellia. His company sent two trucks over to the factory every week, each of which returned with 10 bales on the back containing 800 to 1500 hessian bags.

After the bags were tumbled in a machine to remove the obvious raw asbestos, Downes said, they were sold to various firms for use as "carpet underlay or onion bags". Just this company alone would have processed about a quarter of a million asbestos bags every year.

This is an edited extract from Killer Company: James Hardie Exposed by Matt Peacock, ABC Books, $35, available from September 1. Peacock will appear on September 13 at the Brisbane Writers Festival, which runs from September 9 and is co-sponsored by The Australian.


ASBESTOS is a fibrous mineral used for heat and fire protection and for insulation.

It was used in many kinds of products, including airconditioning ducts, ceiling tiles, bitumen-based waterproofing such as malthoid or roofs, floors and brickwork, roof tiles, cement render, oven door seals, compressed asbestos used in brakes and gaskets, compressed asbestos panels for floorings, verandas and demountable buildings, electric heat banks, flexible hoses, fire-door insulation, fire blankets, beverage and wine filters, insulation around the heating elements in hair dryers, lift shafts, pipe insulation and other products.

It was banned from all further use in 2003.

There is no safe level of asbestos fibre inhalation and cancer from it can take decades to develop.