Ernie Bridge fighting mesothelioma – another Wittenoom victim
Western Australia’s first Aboriginal parliamentarian Ernie Bridge is fighting for his life – he contracted mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos. Mr Bridge has launched a legal action against the State Government and two resource companies owned by two of Australia’s richest women, Gina Rinehart and Angela Bennett.
Mr Bridge said he contracted the asbestos-related disease, which remains latent for many years, while he was a Government minister. At the time, during the late 1980s he was the minister in charge of withdrawing Government services from the Pilbara’s Wittenoom.
The 76 year old father of four was Western Australia’s first member of parliament and he was also the first Aboriginal Cabinet minister in any Australian government.
Mr Wittenoom was born in WA’s north at Halls Creek in 1936. He was a pastoralist, businessman and country singer before entering the Western Australian Legislative Assembly in 1980 and continued to 2001 representing the electorate of Kimberley. He was part of the Labor Party from 1980 to 1996 but fell out with them and represented the Kimberley as an Independent from 1996 to 2001.
In 1986, he was elevated to Minister for Water Resources, the North-West and Aboriginal Affairs.
Mr Bridge is suing the Shire of Ashburton, CSR Limited, Midalco, Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting and Angela Bennett’s Wright Prospecting. Last week his lawyers lodged a writ in the WA Supreme Court seeking damages for exposure to asbestosis which is alleged to have led to him contracting malignant mesothelioma, asbestosis, pleural disease and respiratory degeneration.
Premier Colin Barnett said that Mr Bridge’s cases would be expedited but not any faster than anyone else’s.
“I was very distressed to hear Ernie is so unwell,” said Mr Barnett.
“He is a terrific guy.”
“He has a huge following around the State.”
Former WA premier Peter Dowding said that Mr Bridge had gone to asbestos affected areas such as Wittenoom, Roebourne and Port Samson in doing his job as a Minister in the late 1980s.
“The Point Samson school camp building had asbestos in it because it used to be used for storing the asbestos before it was shipped out,” said Mr Dowding.
Mr Bridge’s lawyer, Simon Millman said his firm had dealt with hundreds of cases for asbestos victims from the region. He claimed there were more cases to be filed on behalf of others and that the number of people filing for compensation showed no sign of dropping off.
Dennis Henderson in the Wittenoom mine, 1957 – Photo supplied by Roan Henderson
Wittenoom is now a ghost town, more than 1100kms north of Perth. It is the site of one of Australia’s worst industrial disasters. Mining began in the 1930s and by 1947 a company was built. By the 1950s Wittenoom was the Pilbara’s largest town. During the 1950s and 1960s Wittenoom was Australia’s only supplier of blue asbestos.
The town was shut down in 1966, partly because of the health concerns from the asbestos mining. The rock band Midnight Oil wrote the song Blue Sky Mining, which went to number one on all the Australian music charts – and it was about the illnesses the workers contracted.
In 2007 the State Government withdrew Wittenoom’s status as a town and today only eight residents remain. The town’s name was removed from official maps and from road signs. The Shire of Ashburton closed a number of roads that lead to contaminated areas.
The first case of asbestosis at Wittenoom occurred in 1946.
The Australian Blue Asbestos Company employed 6,500 men and 500 women in mining and milling at Wittenoom between 1943 and 1966. By 1986 there had been 85 deaths from mesothelioma. It has been estimated that there will be 700 cases of mesothelioma from exposure in and around the Wittenoom mines by 2020. It is also accepted that many impoverished Aboriginal peoples in the regions never knew they had asbestos-related illnesses.
In 1997, Mr Bridge, no longer with the Labor Party launched the Unity of First People of Australia, a not for profit organisation to assist Aboriginal people in Western Australia. He has also received the Medal of the Order of Australia “in recognition to service to the WA Parliament and to Aboriginal Affairs.” In 2001 he was awarded a Centenary Medal for “service to the Parliament and Aboriginal Affairs.”
In 2012, he was named a Member of the Order of Australia for “service to Indigenous communities, particularly through support for health management programs, and to the Parliament of Western Australia.”