The once booming Western Australian mining town of Wittenoom has been abandoned by all but a few hardy residents and the occasional tourist.
Story By John Dunn
Lorraine Thomas is busy in her gem shop. Today, there are quite a few visitors, which isn’t always the case. They buy some jewellery fashioned from an impressive range of local stones – jade, jasper and tiger’s eye – a few postcards, a tea towel or two and most definitely a fridge magnet or a car sticker that says, “I’ve been to Wittenoom and lived!!!”
It is this last sentiment that brings many of them to this asbestos boom centre turned ghost town in the Pilbara in Western Australia’s north-west, 1400 kilometres from Perth. Maybe it’s the thrill of travelling somewhere that is just about out of bounds, or the urge to see for themselves something of this infamous place that has created so much controversy over the years.
Wittenoom ticks both of those boxes. It is treated almost like a leper colony by the state government, which has decreed that it is a contaminated area because of its asbestos association. It says it is no longer a safe place to live and is making it as difficult as possible even to visit. The government’s regional development minister, Jon Ford, says there is “an unacceptable level of risk” for people to remain there because of airborne asbestos fibres. Tourist publications say things like “travellers intending visiting are strongly advised to seek expert medical advice before entering the area”. The Fairfax internet travel guide, Walkabout, warns that Wittenoom “sits in a valley of death”.
For some time, the official line has been that all residents should leave and lately they have been provided with financial inducements to do so. Emphasising that Wittenoom presents “a serious health risk”, Jon Ford says the government is proceeding with its decision to close the town, and many essential services such as electricity, mail and municipal services have already been withdrawn. Most residents have gone and of the thousands who once lived here only a handful remain.
Lorraine is one of them. She disputes the government’s ‘danger’ warnings, and says air-monitoring studies show asbestos levels at and around Wittenoom are well below the acceptable level for anywhere in the western world. “There is no evidence that Wittenoom has any more asbestos than urban areas or anywhere else where asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral in the state’s massive iron-ore deposits,” she says.
The minister says air monitoring does not measure the asbestos in the soil, which can become airborne with human activity or in wind. Lorraine counters by declaring that an average person anywhere inhales up to a million asbestos fibres every year and that they do no harm, and that the danger of related diseases at Wittenoom ended once mining stopped. “Since then, the government has been able to identify only one person who lived in or visited Wittenoom since mining ceased who has contracted mesothelioma,” she says. “My husband, Les, has been here since 1962 and I came in 1980. This is our home and we don’t intend to leave it.”
This story excerpt is from Issue #58
Outback Magazine: Apr/May 2008