Tue. Jul 5th, 2022

The West Australian government says closing the last remnants of an asbestos-riddled town will bring a “dark chapter” of the state’s history to an end.

The long-awaited Wittenoom Closure Bill has passed WA Parliament and will allow the state government to acquire and demolish the final 14 properties in the town.

Wittenoom, in remote northern WA, was taken off the map in 2007 but visitors have continued to ignore warnings about the serious risk posed by its blue asbestos tailings, the products of mining in the town until 1966.

Lands Minister John Carey said he hopes the final closure will put a stop to what he has described as “idiotic” behavior.

“There will be, in effect, nothing left to visit,” he said.

“I do not understand these Instagram influencers… who go out there, because it is idiotic.”

A car, tent and campfire set up with the backdrop of a gorge and water.
Visitors still travel to Wittenoom despite the serious health risks from the blue asbestos that remains there. (Supplied)

The State Government has already acquired most of the private properties at Wittenoom through voluntary acquisition.

Mr Carey said residents who are forced to move away under the new law would be compensated with $ 350,000 from the state.

“With the passing of this bill, the state government will now acquire the remaining properties in the townsite, before removing all structures that are left standing in the area,” he said.

“The passing of the Wittenoom Closure Bill is a significant step in resolving this longstanding industrial tragedy that will protect public health and put an end to a dark period in our state’s history.”

Former residents respond to closure

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

Bronwen Duke was born in Wittenoom, where her father worked on the mines.

A black and white photograph of a young boy and girl in Wittenoom
Bronwen Duke and her brother David lived in Wittenoom when they were children.(Supplied: Bronwen Duke)

She said she had lost 16 people in her family, including her brother David, to asbestos-related diseases and described the final closure of the town as “absolutely wonderful”.

“The town needs to be closed completely, people need to stop going,” she said.

Sign warning of asbestos tailings at Wittenoom Gorge onsite.
While closed to the public, Wittenoom Gorge still attracts ‘danger tourists’ and some locals.(Supplied: State Library of Western Australia)

Ms Duke said she was relieved to reach the end of a decades-long wait to see Wittenoom close, even if it came too late for her family.

“It’s something that has been talked about for such a very long period of time,” she said.

“My brother was 48 when he passed away, and that would’ve been 16 years ago, and he may have been alive if we’d known about the asbestos and all of those things.”

Long-distance view of dark-blue soil-like material sitting in large piles among a mountain range.
Piles of asbestos tailings still litter the area.(Supplied)

Retired WA Greens MP and former Wittenoom worker Robin Chapple said while it was a great step forward, removing structures at the Wittenoom town site would not remove the problem.

“The contamination is closer to the Karijini Lodge [in the national park] than it is to Wittenoom town site, “he said.

“We’ve still got the largest contaminated site anywhere in the world, the most dangerous contaminated site in the world, and closing the mine site will not stop people going into the gorge.

Traditional owners demand clean-up plan

Banjima elder Maitland Parker has been calling on the state government for years to clean up the contaminated area.

a man in front of a tree
Banjima elder Maitland Parker has mesothelioma from asbestos exposure.(ABC Pilbara: Susan Standen)

A letter from Mr Parker was read by Greens MP Brad Pettitt in state parliament last night.

“After decades in the courts, on 14th March 2014, Banjima people achieved Native Title over our homelands but we did not get our country,” Mr Parker’s letter read.

Mr Parker wants to know who will remedy the land.

“We can not afford to, so somebody must be liable and our government just needs to ensure that whoever is responsible foots the bill,” the letter said.

“Government continues to say let us just fix up the Wittenoom town site, some 11kms away, first and then we will look at your issue, when they are also telling us that to clean-up our country is too expensive.

“We want what is rightfully ours as determined by the courts; we want our country back. We want Ngambigunha back.”

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