Wittenoom was a small mining town located 1400 kilometers northeast of Perth. At one time, this was the only area in Australia where blue asbestos was produced.
The presence of blue asbestos was first recorded in 1917 by the Mines Department. Located in the Hamersley Ranges, Wittenoom Gorge on the Mulga Downs property was discovered by Langley Hancock in the early 30s.
In 1944, dust issues at Wittenoom were reported by Inspector Adams. He discussed the need to reduces the dust levels in the mine. In addition to this, the Assistant State Mining Engineer reported that the dust generated in Wittenoom was dangerous. It wasn’t until 1946 that the first case of asbestosis occurred. However, asbestosis was not conclusively diagnosed until several years later.
The mining operation shut down in 1966 as health concerns over the dangers of asbestos began to emerge and the demand for asbestos began to decline.
It took another 10 years until health authorities realized that the blue asbestos dust that had swept through the town was hazardous to the residents’ health.
Additionally, it was another three years before the WA government declared Wittenoom as a contaminated area.
At the height of production, the population in Wittenoom was approximately 20,000.
The population consisted of 7,000 mill and mine workers and 13,000 family members and workers who worked int he town.
Blue asbestos was used in the production of a number of products, including ceiling insulation, pipes, fire resistant spray coating, and concrete.
Blue asbestos is a hundred times more dangerous than white asbestos due to the small size of the fibers.
Wittenoom’s sporting fields, roads, car parks, and playgrounds were built using mine tailings from the area.
More that 150,000 tons of blue asbestos was extracted in Wittenoom while the mine was in operation.
So far more than 2,000 residents and workers have died due to asbestos-related deaths. Dozens more have sought legal action against the mining company that was founded by Lang Hancock and then purchased by CSR.
After the mine was closed, most residents left the area. However, a small number of residents remained in the town.
The government began phasing down activity in Wittenoom in 1978. The phase down policy was the most appropriate course of action that the government could take due to the widespread crocidolite contamination in the town.
The policy requested that the residents voluntarily relocate out of the Wittenoom area. The government purchased homes, businesses, and properties in the area and contributed to the relocation expenses of the residents. Many local residents, along with the Shire of Ashburton, opposed the closing of Wittenoom. They lobbied to have the town cleaned up and used as a tourist attraction.
Nowadays, when people even suspect asbestos is in there home they call a contractor that is licensed to complete asbestos removal in Melbourne to come in and assess the job and dispose of the asbestos safely.
In 2007, the government cut off the electricity and the mail service to the town.
Wittenoom is not longer part of the Shire of Ashburton; however, there is still three residents who pay rates.
The former town of Wittenoon is now a 470 square kilometer contamination zone.
One of the highest contamination risk areas is the Wittenoom Gorge. The mouth of the gorge is more than one kilometer wide.
A number of feasibility studies on cleaning up the area have been done over the last decade. Additionally, a new study will take place next month.
The Department of Lands reported that contractors will travel to the Wittenoom in June to do a number of test pits to determine how to handle the contamination in the area.
Three high-risk areas have been identified. Geotechnical work will be done to see if they are suitable to help secure tailing from the Wittenoom Gorge.
Besides the health risks involved in the area, the government is facing the task of affording the cost of completing the clean-up efforts.