The Guardian • Issue #2031

The legacy of asbestos mining at Wittenoom

Wittenoom Gorge Mine

Wittenoom Gorge Mine – 1962. The mine in operation. The asbestos dust from the “bagging” room often cast a blue haze over the area. Breathing that dust was deadly for those that lived and worked there. Photo: Philip Schubert – (CC BY-ND 2.0)

“If the sugar refining company won’t come to my rescue/Who’s going to save me?” So goes the song Blue Sky Mine by Australian band Midnight oil. A song about the effects of asbestos mining on the workers and inhabitants of Wittenoom, a mine owned and run by sugar refining company CSR. Even when it became obvious that asbestos mining was detrimental to the health of the workers and was killing them they continued mining it until the mine was shut down in 1966 due to unprofitability and growing health concerns.

The health issues connected with the mining and use of asbestos were widely known by the 1930s yet this information was hidden by medical institutions. Asbestos was widely used by all branches of the military at the time so the government, with the help of medical institutions, embarked on possibly the worst act of indifference to worker’s health ever in Australia, through denial and cover-ups, it was a shameful act.

CSR operated the asbestos mine at Wittenoom from 1943 until its eventual closure in 1966. The first case of Mesothelioma was diagnosed in 1962 by the West Australian medical officer Dr Mc Nulty. He expressed his concern that the mine was being run in a manner detrimental to the health of the workers and inhabitants to both the CSR management and the west Australian government, but CSR threatened to shut the mine down if it was forced to spend money on safer mining processes so it continued until 1963.

It is incredulous that despite the many warnings from doctors and mining inspectors, CSR continued to run the mine and milling operations with little regard for dust suppression, which is now considered to be the reason for many premature deaths of former Wittenoom workers and inhabitants many years later.

During the 1970s Dr Janet Elder, Senior Chest Physician at the University of Department of Medicine at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, was horrified by the speed with which the new cases of mesothelioma and other asbestos-caused diseases were developing amongst the former Wittenoom workers. “The dreadful tragedy,” she recalls, “was that so many of its victims were very young and very fit when they went there.”

Over 2000 former workers and inhabitants eventually died from mesothelioma. Although compensation was eventually granted through the courts, for many it was too late, passing from the disease before they received anything.

One of the legacies of this shameful example of capitalist greed and profit before people is that the Wittenoom area now has the dubious distinction of being the largest contaminated site in the southern hemisphere, estimates of remediation costs run into the hundreds of million dollars. The first custodians of the red-dirt country in the state’s Pilbara region are the Banjima people. Their land is still scarred by mountains of asbestos tailings.

The Banjima people have been unable to access their land and sacred sites for over sixty years due to the level of contamination and the fact that Hancock mining, owned by Gina Reinhardt, still holds an iron ore lease over the land in the Wittenoom gorge. It is a major concern to them that further damage may be done to sacred sites and artefacts.

Successive governments have focused on closing the town and removing residents from the area, but what the WA state government really needs to do is clean up the mess created by CSR, and send them the bill, so that the Banjima people can access the land they legally own again.

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