How Do You Solve a Problem like Wittenoom? 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



As the Wittenoom Closure Bill 2019 proceeds through the Parliament of Western Australia, renewed calls are being made for CSR (the Colonial Sugar Refining Limited Company) and Hancock Prospecting – former owners of the pollution-producing crocidolite (blue) asbestos mine operational during the 1950s and early 1960s – to pay for decontamination work.1 On April 8, 2019, comments by West Australia’s Minister for Finance, Energy and Aboriginal Affairs Ben Wyatt were reported in which he acknowledged that:

  • the Pilbara town of Wittenoom was probably the southern hemisphere’s most contaminated site with 3,000,000 tonnes of asbestos-containing mining waste polluting the town, the landscape and gorges;2
  • it was probably impossible to make the town fit for human habitation;
  • the WA government had an obligation to remediate the areas of cultural significance to the Banjima people, the traditional owners of the land.3

The Minister’s comments were made weeks after Banjima elders reminded the Australian Broadcasting Corporation about the tribe’s connections to Wittenoom:

  • “People come up here [Wittenoom] and talk about the old stories, and that's part of keeping the knowledge alive.”
  • “We do take risks to come and visit here because some of the spiritual places need to have connection for us Banjima people. We have to have connection to our homeland.”
  • “It looks horrible up in there [Wittenoom Gorge]. The creek beds are just full of asbestos that's coming down from the hills.” 4


Of course, there is a price paid by the Banjima for their links to this polluted land; according to a 2016 paper by researchers from the University of Western Australia “indigenous West Australians have the highest death rate for malignant mesothelioma (the signature cancer for asbestos exposure) in the world;” in 67% of the cases from the 2016 mesothelioma cohort, causation of the cancer was asbestos exposure at Wittenoom.5

In the April 2019 newsletter of the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia, many of whose founding members had worked at the Wittenoom mine, the state government was urged to take prompt action regarding:

“the mountains of blue asbestos tailings to prevent further erosion and dissemination into Joffre Creek which is a tributary to the Fortescue River. Regrettably very little pressure, if any, was put on CSR by the then Sir Charles Court Liberal Government to persuade CSR and any of its associates to remove the deadly tailings from around the utilities and indeed clean up the actual Wittenoom Township and all amenities i.e. schools, hospital, hotel, airport tarmac etc.”6

The fact that Wittenoom is buried deep in the Hamersley Range in the remote Pilbara region, more than 1,400 kilometers from Perth, makes the devastation wrought by years of asbestos mining a low priority for WA politicians; after all, until they are relocated, the three landowners still living in the town have little, if any, political clout. Under the draft WA legislation, properties and land will be purchased at a total cost to the WA taxpayers of $2-$3 million. Measures to dissuade future visitors – Wittenoom seems to have a peculiar attraction for those looking for unusual photos for social media platforms – include the demolition of remaining buildings, the removal of roads and the erection of new signage warning of the asbestos hazard.

Seventeen thousand kilometres northeast of Wittenoom, the residents of former asbestos mining towns such as Asbestos and Thetford Mines, Quebec also live amidst mountains of mine tailings containing up to 40% asbestos. Unfortunately for them, the prospect of relocating residents and shutting down their towns is not an option. Communities in former South African asbestos mining towns like Kuruman and Prieska in the Northern Cape Province also live under an asbestos blight7 as do residents of the Russian monotown of Asbest where “mortality rates for cancers of the lung, stomach and colon were statistically significantly higher in Asbest city” than in the surrounding region of Sverdlovsk.8 The Australian, Canadian and South African mines were abandoned with damaged human beings and devastated landscapes left behind; any funds provided for the injured or for decontamination came from taxpayers, never from the corporations which created the ecological disasters. Although the Russian mine is still operational, changing patterns of consumption and increasing awareness of the hazards of asbestos exposure are negatively impacting on sales. When the Uralasbest mine finally closes, the once-loyal workforce and supportive municipality within which it operated will – like their counterparts all over the world – be cast adrift and left to fend for themselves.

April 10, 2019


1 Wittenoom Closure Bill 2019.$File/Bill120-1.pdf

2 It is noteworthy that the creation of three million tonnes of waste by the Wittenoom mine was the result of the production of just 165,000 tonnes of blue asbestos fiber.

3 Miners urged to help WA asbestos clean-up. April 8, 2019.

4 Elders demand asbestos tailings at Wittenoom Gorge be cleaned up. February 8, 2019.

5 Indigenous West Australians have highest death rate for asbestos-related disease: study. July 6, 2016.

6 ADSA. Easter Newsletter: Article 2 – Wittenoom is the most dangerous ghost town in the Southern Hemisphere. April 12, 2019

7 Kazan-Allen L. South Africa’s Asbestos Crisis. March 12, 2015.

8 In Asbest, Russia, Making Asbestos Great Again. April 7, 2019.



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