Billy Soltesz loved his surfing, loved his golf and his footy. A carpenter by trade, he spent his early years on the local golf course collecting balls, surfed when the waves were on, and attended Bellarine Secondary College on the Bellarine Peninsula, now the scene of a major investigation into a potential cancer cluster. 

Shortly after his baby boy Bowie was born, Billy started complaining of headaches, fatigue and diminishing eyesight. He was diagnosed with a brain tumour and two months later, aged 27, he was dead. 

“It gives you chills when you think about it,” his brother, Lachie, tells Tracks. 

“It’s such a little town and to think Bill’s just another statistic in that is gut-wrenching,” he says. 

Along with Billy a dozen or more people from the Bellarine Peninsula, which includes the sleepy surf hamlets of Barwon Heads and Ocean Grove, have presented with cancers or cancer-related illnesses. As investigators, lawyers and community groups continue hashing out the details, more and more people are coming forward in what is shaping up as a scandal that could rock the nation. 

“It’s kinda surreal. It’s only sunk in in the past week with how many people are coming forth,” says Lachie. 

“I know six friends who are not here anymore. Crew I went to primary school with under the age of 30. It’s pretty heavy and it’s a tiny town,” he says.

Barwon Heads is a storied part of the Victorian surfing landscape. Thirteenth Beach, located a few minutes from the town, was used as the back-up venue for the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach World Tour event in previous years. 

Families in the area believe the high incidence of cancers are linked to a former agricultural chemical, a pesticide called Deildrin, which was widely used by farmers in the area until it was banned in 1987.

The pesticide originates from the same family as DD and a 2016 international review into its effects found the chemical was “probably carcinogenic” to humans and known to have caused cancers in some animals. 

A leading law firm is now preparing a test case related to the death of a man in his early 30s who grew up in nearby Ocean Grove, and dieldrin.  The Barwon Heads community association is demanding answers from its local member of parliament with a crisis meeting scheduled in the community next month. Lachie is concerned there are more chemicals at play than just dieldren, though he declined to name names due to the threat of litigation. 

“Europe’s trying make change on these chemicals but the powers are so big with these lobby groups they end up breaking through parliament and everywhere (so) things don’t change,” he says. 

“They’re above governments these corporations. There’s a lie to be exposed and at some point it’s going to be exposed for sure,” he says. 

Like the rest of the affected families and friends, Lachie just wants the truth and some hard scientific data, despite how painful it promises to be. 

“Everyone is searching for answers man but everyone is so traumatised at the same time, you know what I mean?” he says.

“People want answers but at the same time it’s like ripping that band-aid off. The trauma is there and people are trying to forget about it,” he says.

*Donate or head down to the Mullet Pro soft-top surfing contest to support the Barwon Heads community and mental health awareness.

- Jed Smith