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Witenoom's diehard residents stay put -

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Witenoom's diehard residents stay put

Reporter: Mick O'Donnell

MAXINE McKEW: While asbestos and the diseases it causes continue to make headlines, the town of
Wittenoom in Western Australia, where deadly blue asbestos was mined in the 1950s and 1960s, is a
place that continues to fight for survival.

Despite Government attempts to close down the remote town - attempts that have been under way for
30 years - a group of loyalists remain, determined to keep their homes.

The latest Government steering committee has recommended to the WA Cabinet that the 18 remaining
residents be encouraged to move out and that their homes be demolished.

Critics say even minute amounts of the deadly asbestos fibres are endangering both residents and

But, as Mick O'Donnell reports, the residents believe there is no danger remaining from the mining

MICK O'DONNELL: While you might imagine that Wittenoom, ground zero of Australia's worst industrial
nightmare, is a hell on earth, to long-time resident Paul Fitzgerald, it's paradise.

PAUL FITZGERALD, RESIDENT: I'm living my life out here.

I quite enjoy the surroundings and the people, not just the locals but the visitors.

It's a peaceful kind of existence, not much stress, and you're near to nature.

MICK O'DONNELL: Paul Fitzgerald, once a Catholic priest who came to serve the Pilbara in the '60s,
now lives on in the ghost town of Wittenoom, taking readings for the weather bureau, even running a
guesthouse for passing tourists.

PAUL FITZGERALD: Fortunately, we're free of all the problems you have in the cities of Australia,
including pollution.

MICK O'DONNELL: The deadly blue asbestos was mined here in the '50s and '60s, feeding the James
Hardie factories which distributed it in building materials all around the country.

Today, 6 per cent of the hundreds of dead and ill from asbestos owe their exposure to having lived
or worked here in Wittenoom.

Most acknowledge that any remaining danger is from the tiny fibres dispersed from the massive
tailings dump at the asbestos mine site.

PAUL FITZGERALD: The town is perfectly clean.

It's out in the gorge at the old mine site - that's where the problem is.

MICK O'DONNELL: Most acknowledge any remaining danger is from the tiny fibres at the massive dump
at the asbestos mine site.

JOHN FORD, LABOR MP: There's natural occurrences from time to time after floods.

The hard face is taken away by the water and then the wind can lift it up and blow it around.

MICK O'DONNELL: Though the government of Sir Charles Court declared that the town would close in
1978, dozens still lived there in '92, even when the courts began to find that residents, not just
miners had been at risk of the cancer mesothelioma leading to panic by some And another government
declaration that the town would finally close.

HENDY COWAN, WA DEPUTY PREMIER, 1992: I'm not going to have this particular issue on the agenda for
the next 20 years.

MICK O'DONNELL: 10 years on it's the turn of local State MP John Ford to declare its demise.

Is Wittenoom a dangerous place?


MICK O'DONNELL: And it should be closed down?

JOHN FORD: Yes, as soon as possible.

MICK O'DONNELL: John Ford says that while residents remain, they will endanger others who are
attracted to the area's great natural beauty and colourful reputation.

Around 18 of the diehards remained, sceptical of the claims of danger.

Some even moved into the town in recent years.


I've got no intention of leaving.

The only place I'll go to is the cemetery here and I've got no intention of going there for some
time yet.

MICK O'DONNELL: Lorraine Thomas runs the Wittenoom gem shop and, believe it or not, rents out
holiday homes.

LORRAINE THOMAS: What is recorded here is a level of airborne asbestos that is 100 times less than
WorkSafe say is acceptable in the workplace, and it is actually less than in the mining towns that
surround the area.

MICK O'DONNELL: What the State Government doesn't advertise is that one of the State's premier
tourist locations, the gorgeous Karijini National Park, is closer to the waste dump than the town
of Wittenoom.

PAUL FITZGERALD: It's just over the hill from the mine site, so they're hypocritical.

MICK O'DONNELL: They should be shutting down the national park?


They should be shutting down the iron ore mines, for that matter.

MICK O'DONNELL: But former Labor and now Independent MP Mark Neville, a geologist, rubbishes the
government's claims about airborne fibre danger.

MARK NEVILL, GEOLOGIST: When you monitor the air in Wittenoom township now, the tailings have been
cleaned up, the asbestos levels are below the detection levels of the equipment.

MICK O'DONNELL: Mark Neville took the most accurate measurements of airborne asbestos in the
Wittenoom Gorge, near the mine, and in Wittenoom township back in the early 90s.

He believes rather than shutting the town, the government should finally put money into removing
the massive tailings.

MARK NEVILL: There is a low-level risk associated with the tailings at the mine if people are
walking over them and disturbing them.

They should be cleaned up.

MICK O'DONNELL: In the meantime, Wittenoom remains a wild west limbo of conflicting messages from
government bodies.

Austrian immigrant Mario Hartmann collects the mail for Australia Post.

MARIO HARTMANN, RESIDENT: It's a good lifestyle.

There is no crime here.

MICK O'DONNELL: He's also contracted to the State-owned power company to keep the electricity
station going.

But the local Ashburton Shire Council refuses to allow its workers to enter the town for the usual
health and building regulation.

LORRAINE THOMAS: That's true at the moment.

MICK O'DONNELL: So there's no supervision of the buildings of the businesses whatsoever?

LORRAINE THOMAS: That's alright.

MICK O'DONNELL: It's the wild west.

LORRAINE THOMAS: As I said, it's quite free.

MICK O'DONNELL: There's no doubt that Wittenoom's history is a trail of tragedy.

It has been a dirty old town.

But for those who want to see out their days here, there's life in the old place yet.