Sat. Jan 22nd, 2022

The former asbestos mining town of Wittenoom has claimed many lives, but that is not enough to deter some who proudly call it home.

After several years of compensation offers, the WA government will turn to forcibly remove the remaining properties under a bill expected to be passed in parliament.

It is hoped that the clearance of the former urban site will reduce the attraction for visitors, who ignore significant health warnings about asbestos fibers on the ground and in the air at Wittenoom.

Only 12 km away is three million tons of asbestos waste.

‘This is home’

Peter Heyward moved to the area in the 90s, saying he knew the dangers but enjoyed the lifestyle.

“It’s just beautiful to live here,” he said.

“When you look at the mountains, you get the view of the savannah, and you are right next to a gorge that has water all year round.”

A smiling man is standing on his porch.
Peter Heyward moved to Wittenoom in 1992, when the population had already fallen. (Delivered)

Long-term resident Lorraine Thomas said she had options if she was forced to leave, but she hoped to live her life out in Wittenoom.

“They can not move the hills, the whole area … I love the weather.

“No person can take it from me.”

A woman holding a teacup is standing among flowers in front of a house.
Lorraine Thomas says she owns several properties in Wittenoom and intends to stay. (Delivered)

The WA government’s planned eviction and demolition would come with an undisclosed amount of compensation.

Mario Hartmann is one of the residents who recently accepted an offer to hand over his property, but it has not kept him away.

“It’s too cold in the south, so I come in the winter to enjoy the warm weather,” he said.

A man is standing next to a tree in front of a mountain range.
Mario Hartmann said the older houses in Wittenoom were built with timber, while newer houses contained asbestos. (Delivered)

Tourists warned to stay away

With several Western Australians exploring their own state during the pandemic’s travel restrictions, Mr Hartmann noticed an increase in visitors.

“This year I have never seen so many people come here, some days you would have 50, 60 cars out. [to the gorge and the asbestos tailings],” he said.

That’s an alarming number for Curtin University associate professor Alison Reid, who has studied the mine’s health impact.

“People [who visit Wittenoom] exposing himself unnecessarily to danger, “she said.

Television of dark blue earth-like material sitting in large piles among a mountain range.
Piles of asbestos waste still cover the area. (Delivered)

At least 1,200 former Wittenoom residents and workers have died of lung cancer and mesothelioma, according to a database maintained by UWA’s Occupational Respiratory Epidemiology Group.

“The flying doctors used to intervene in the city of Wittenoom from the blue haze on the horizon, and it was dusty … that’s how the workers and people of the city were exposed through that dust.

“It has caused Western Australia to have the highest incidence of mesothelioma in the world.”

The area is no longer on official maps, it was declared a contaminated area, and the state government has repeatedly warned the public against visiting it.

Sign with asbestos waste warning at Wittenoom Gorge on site.
Wittenoom Gorge is closed to the public, but still attracts “danger tourists” and some locals.(Delivered to: State Library of Western Australia)

Land Minister Tony Buti said visitors posed a risk to the wider public because cars could scatter particles across the area.

“There is no doubt that this area is one of the saddest chapters in WA’s history,” he said.

“But we have to be realistic, and the fact is, it’s unlikely that Wittenoom will ever again be a safe place to stay or visit.”

The traditional Banjima owners last month asked the state parliament to go further than removing the remaining infrastructure and cleaning up the area so that it is no longer polluted.

Mr. Buti said the Banjima people were members of a steering group that would “advance ongoing management opportunities and advise the state government on what actions could be considered to maintain public safety in the area and reduce the ongoing impact on the countryside”.

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