media; humour

Small town story

BIG cities have big stories. There’s no doubt about that. But country towns have their stories too.

Sometimes, though, they are buried a little deeper, held secret by layers of officialdom and denials. I work at the Leongatha Star and the Yarram Standard. Both papers are in small towns – Leongatha with a population a smidge over 5000, Yarram with not much more than 2000.

I would argue that while the big city has its big stories, there are actually more per capita in the country. The further away you get from the centre of things, the odder people’s behaviour tends to be. Put yourself in a small place, and you can guarantee a higher concentration of weirdness. Look, I’m not saying that people in Yarram are deranged or anything like that. But they are a little eccentric.

Yarram is on the fringe. It is beyond the regulated behaviour that keeps city people in check. That makes it a great place to bury things – secrets, the truth, toxic waste. In 2003, the CFMEU came to town to help former Lands Department workers with health claims. Many had become sick – and sadly more than a few had died – from the effects of the chemicals they used to kill blackberries and other weeds. Essentially, mixed together, the concoction was what was more commonly known as Agent Orange – that evil cancer and birth defect-causing shit that has stained generations since the Vietnam War.

The story went that at least two of the drums sent from Western Australia to Yarram were fire-damaged, making them hundreds of times stronger than your ordinary Agent Orange. Hundreds of times more damaging to people’s health and their offspring.

Coincidentally, two drums were hastily buried near the Yarram Golf Course as the union came to town. No one can really say whether these were the fabled fire-damaged drums. But what seems beyond doubt was the intention to deny the union the chance to test the contents of them. Hundreds of other drums, probably empty but with traces of Agent Orange, were also buried at the site in the preceding years.

The EPA, urged by the Yarram Standard to investigate the site, claimed there was nothing to substantiate the story of buried chemicals. Now, it acknowledges the concerns of people who believe Agent Orange was buried there. More than one man has come forward to say he helped bury the drums.

Former Lands Department worker, John Austin, has offered to show the EPA where they are. The EPA has continued to maintain that if someone were to show its investigators where the drums were, it would inspect the site. Nothing has come of this, and Mr Austin remains frustrated by the inaction. A report he submitted to the environmental protector was mysteriously lost. Another remains in limbo.

Something is buried in Yarram. And the government does not seem keen to reveal what it is. Something is buried. It may well be the truth of a generation of cancer and birth defects. The trouble is, until it is acknowledged, dug up and examined, no one will ever know for sure.

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