A Tale Of Two Cities: Wittenoom, Australia and Libby, Montana
Wittenoom: A Ghost Town
The story of Wittenoom, Like Libby, is inextricably linked to the mining of asbestos. The life and death of this town are part of the tale that links together corporate greed and human suffering. Wittenoom was a small town in Western Australia. It began its existence as a sea of tents rose nearby to house the miners who came to take the magic mineral out of the ground.
The Story Begins
Blue asbestos had been found in the hills of Western Australia in the Pilabara before the 1920s. It was initially hacked out of the ground using picks and shovels. A rush began to uncover it in 1937. However, serious mining of the substance did not occur until 1939. At this time, Mr. Lang Hancock had begun erecting primitive structures to crush or mill what the ground would give. This was given the name of Wittenoom Mill. Hancock ran it together with the West Australian Blue Asbestos Fibres Ltd.
In 1943, the Hancock Syndicate sold it all to a branch of the Colonial Sugar Refinery (CSR). Hancock, however, remained around as the superintendent of operations for what was now Australian Blue Asbestos Ltd (ABA). It was a company and a product that the Australian government at the time encouraged to be productive.
In 1946, to accommodate staff, mill and mine employees and their families, a small town grew up on Wittenoom Gorge. The population grew quickly reaching around 500 settled in some 150 residences by 1951. The small town was some 10 km from the operations, but this was not to prevent the disaster that was soon to take over the town.
It is an Ill wind that Blew No Good
Asbestos is easily carried in the wind. It rides in on clothing and on top of vehicles. The working force at the mines numbered around 20, but it changed with regularity as people came and went. Working in the mines was hot, sticky and intense labour. Although the wages were fairly high it is not surprising there was a high turnover in employees. Some number the total people who worked there as close to 2,000.
CSRT even got help from the government went it needed a more stable workforce. They got and received the right to import workers from Europe. They had to sign a two year contract. For many, the promise of a new life ended up in death from asbestos-related diseases.
It was not only the workers at the mill that breathed in asbestos every day. In the town, the wind blew in asbestos dust. As was to be the case in Libby, Montana, the company gave the town “soil” to use. They placed these mine tailings in gardens, golf courses and race tracks and on the paths and driveways as well as the commercial/public roadways. It covered the fields and was used wherever it was felt necessary, including as part of cement pads for residences and around caravan parks. Any activity would be capable of stirring the asbestos into the air where it could be breathed in.
What the Company Knew
By the early 20th century, health officials well knew of the dangers caused by the mining of asbestos. Companies were warned but reports were suppressed or ignored. In fact, Dr Eric Saint, a Government Medical Officer, wrote about the effects of the Wittenoom mines and their conditions. He had reported his findings to the government department of health and, advising the management of the Wittenoom mine, warned them of the consequences. Mine inspectors warned the company it had to reduce the dust level. Dr Jim McNulty representing the Health Department of WA, voiced his concerns but they fell on deaf ears.
McNulty even talked to the major players of the parent company, the top brass felt it was something to be ignored. It was only dust so who actually cared. McNulty continued to warn them and the government on a regular basis between 1957 and 1962. The mine remained operational. The company ignored him and his concerns. The workers continued to mine without any form of safety protection. The company retained these practices until it closed in 1966.
A Long Time Coming
The end of the mine also saw the death of Wittenoom. It was not only the town that died. Within the community, people had been slowing losing their lives along with their livelihood. Asbstosis and Mesothelioma are slow diseases. Yet, the company refused to take notice or accept responsibilities. It was not until 1988, that the residents of Wittenoom received some form of justice. A judge ruled in their favour finding the company guilty of deliberately ignoring the health, welfare and safety of their employees. CSR was forced to accept responsibility for its callous actions.
By then, it was too late for the town. The government of WA soon determined a clean-up was impossible. The town was too polluted to even allow visitors to stay. The people were moved out by 1994. Today, it is Ghost Town. It is a legacy and a warning of what can happen as a result of a company’s preference for profits and shareholders over the wellbeing of their employees.
Unfortunately, as studies of the children raised in Wittendom, the problem is not going away any time soon. The researchers discovered that of 2640 former Wittenoom children 228 had died of various causes with, by the end of 2009, 207 of them suffering from a high incidence of cancer - 215 cases in 207 individuals.
This is not a legacy a company should be proud of. Yet, the memory of the town will live on as well in poetry, novels and in the lyrics of Blue Sky Mine by Midnight Oil to remind people of what can and continues to happen when profits are at stake. As for the people of Libby, Montana and Wittenoom, Western Australia, they will never be able to forget.