The Asbestos Ghost Town of Wittenoom

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One of the most beautiful areas in the Pilbara region of Western Australia is also one of the most dangerous. About eighty years ago, blue asbestos crocidolite was discovered here leading to the development of extensive mines and subsequently a town to support the workforce. For the next thirty years, Wittenoom was Australia's only supplier of blue asbestos shipping out some 161,000 tons of the deadly material.

Asbestos is extremely toxic. The thin fibrous crystals of asbestos is composed of millions of microscopic filaments that are easily released in air as dust. When inhaled, these fibers get lodged in the lung where it stays for years, slowly scaring the lung tissues, restricting one's ability to inhale and eventually causing a type of rare and untreatable cancer. Of the estimated 20,000 people who lived and worked in Wittenoom during the life of the mines and town, more than 2,000 are believed to have so far died of asbestos-related diseases. Yet, when the mines closed in 1966, it was not due to growing health concern but lack of profitability.

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Photo credit: Ray Foot/Flickr

Although blue asbestos was first recorded in the area in 1917, it was prospector Lang Hancock and partner Peter Wright who started large-scale mining of Wittenoom Gorge in 1936. Two years later, mining started in the nearby Yampire Gorge. By 1939, Wittenoom was producing large quantities of asbestos that were promptly bought by the British to meet the surging demand created by the Second World War. Thousands of tons of asbestos were used in battleships to insulate piping, boilers, steam engines, and steam turbines. Asbestos was also used in tanks, planes, helmets and to make filters for —ironically— gas masks. Even before the war, asbestos use was widespread. Its resistance to fire, heat, electrical and chemical damage as well as affordability, made it the material of choice in applications such as electrical insulation and building insulation.

In 1943, the mine was bought by Australian Blue Asbestos Pty Ltd, a subsidiary of CSR Limited, who continued mining until 1966. Unfortunately for CSR, the company struggled to make profit. By the time the mine closed, the company had an accumulated debt of around $2.5 million.

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Blue asbestos from Wittenoom. Photo credit: Edgar Vonk/Flickr

The town of Wittenoom was built in 1947, ten kilometers from the mine. At its peak, some 20,000 people consisting of workers and their families lived there. Government medical officers who visited Wittenoom shortly after its founding raised serious concerns about dust levels in the mine and processing plant, and warned the company about the risks of asbestos and the dangers to the miners and the people living in the town. But the Health Department did not have the authority to order CSR to close down the mine.

The first case of asbestosis at Wittenoom was reported as early as 1946, although it was not conclusively diagnosed until much later. The first mesothelioma case was diagnosed in 1962. In the last five years of the mine’s existence, more than 100 cases of lung disease were recorded in the town.

Although the mines are gone, mountains of blue asbestos tailings still remain in the Pilbara, open to the elements, spreading across the landscape by the annual floods, contaminating water sources, pastures and other inhabited areas.

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Wittenoom in 1966. Photo credit: lindsaybridge/Flickr

Starting from 1978, the government started phasing down activity in the town and encouraged residents to relocate. But the town would officially remain open another three decades, serving as a prime tourist destination with up to 40,000 visitors a year. In 2006, the government turned off the power grid to Wittenoom. The next year, the town's name was wiped from official maps and signs were posted around the old township warning visitors of the deadly risks of airborne asbestos. But not everyone was ready to move out. As of 2015, three people still live in Wittenoom.

Lorraine Thomas, who has been living in Wittenoom since 1984 and runs the local gem and souvenir shop catering to tourists, is dismissive of the health risks. “It’s only the dust that’s dangerous,” she says, claiming there is little or no airborne asbestos in the town since mining activities ceased.

Another resident Mario Hartmann refused to move because the money the government offered to buy him out —$40,000 plus $10,000 in moving costs, was not enough to buy a house somewhere else.

Peter Heyward, on the other hand, simply likes the “silent stillness” of the surroundings. “The hills, the plains, the openness, the quiet. I love the country," he said.

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Wittenoom in 1966. Photo credit: lindsaybridge/Flickr

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Wittenoom in 1966. Photo credit: lindsaybridge/Flickr

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Yampire Gorge Mine Engine – 1978. Photo credit: Philip Schubert/Flickr

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Wittenoom in 1962. Photo credit: Philip Schubert/Flickr

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Wittenoom in 1962. Photo credit: Philip Schubert/Flickr

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Photo credit: Michael Theis/Flickr

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Wittenoom’s name deleted from road signs. Photo credit: Jurriaan Persyn/Flickr

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State government warning sign near the entrance to Wittenoom. Photo credit: Five Years/Wikimedia

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Mine tailings near Wittenoom. Photo credit: Five Years/Wikimedia

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Photo credit: Five Years/Wikimedia

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Photo credit: Five Years/Wikimedia

Sources: Wikipedia / www.watoday.com.au / Mental Floss / www.asbestosdiseases.org.au

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3 comments:

  1. Ah the irony, Lang Hancock (and by default his daughter) become one of the most richest people in Australia, but no compensation was ever paid out from his vast profits.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank God asbestos is banned in Australia. No wonder the town is a ghost town, and people were infected, being so close to asbestos and actually working with it.

    There has been a debate that asbestos fibers don't cause mesothelioma and related diseases such as lung cancer (IMHO such things said are only lies by asbestos mafias) but more than 2000 out of 20,000 people dying is a truth no one can deny.
    The percent of dead people is almost 10 percent!

    ReplyDelete
  3. We have plenty of asbestos products in Poland. Thousands of homes have roofs of asbestos plates. It was cheap building material in the age of communism. The communist governement did'nt inform anybody of the danger. But Poland have no money to utilise it now, so people are still living beside this cancerous products.

    ReplyDelete

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