Living in the danger zone: the last stand in town toxic

Thousands of deaths have been linked to the asbestos mine at Wittenoom, the site of Australia's worst industrial disaster. Kathy Marks finds out why the eight remaining residents are determined to stay put

The sun is going down over Wittenoom, turning the Hammersley Ranges, at the foot of which the town nestles, soft shades of ochre and green. A kangaroo hops along the cracked main street, dodging potholes where wildflowers and vegetation have sprouted.

It seems a tranquil and beautiful spot, yet if the government is to be believed, this is Australia's most toxic town. Danger lurks in every road and building, in the earth and in the air around Wittenoom – the legacy of deadly blue asbestos mined for decades in a picturesque gorge near by.

While mining ended in the 1960s, the town is notorious as the site of the nation's worst industrial disaster. The asbestos dug out of the ground in this remote area of Western Australia, and used in building products around the country and overseas, has caused thousands of premature deaths. Now the government would like to wipe Wittenoom off the map – literally.

For years, state authorities have been trying to persuade local residents to leave. In 2006, they cut off the electricity and water supply, and last year they de-gazetted the town, meaning that Wittenoom no longer officially exists. But eight residents are still hanging on, refusing to leave. "This is my home, and I'm not going anywhere," says Frank Timewell, aged 72. "There's nothing wrong with me, and I've been living in the area for 40-odd years."

When Mr Timewell moved to Wittenoom, it was a thriving place, with a population of 1,500. It had two motels and a pub, two churches, a hospital, a school and a cinema. Now it is a ghost town, with just a dozen tin-roofed houses and one business: a gem and souvenir shop, catering for the occasional curious tourist.

Yet Mr Timewell and his wife, Meg, say they could not be happier. They love the scenery, and the solitude. Like other diehards, they have become self-reliant. They have installed a generator and pump water from a bore. They shop once a month in the nearest town, 80 miles away along a dirt road. Mrs Timewell, 62, believes the health risk has been exaggerated.

"If they want me to move, they'll have to put me in chains and throw me in the back of a paddy wagon [police van]," she says. "They can bulldoze my house, but I won't capitulate."

The government considers such attitudes foolhardy. A report last year concluded that the health risks facing Wittenoom residents were "extreme". Even tourists were at medium risk in the town, it stated, and at extreme risk if they visited the gorge, with its towering red cliffs and freshwater pools.

Previous reports were more equivocal, though, and locals accuse the authorities of forcing them out so that the area can be mined for lucrative iron ore.

A total of 20,000 people lived in Wittenoom during the asbestos era, from 1943 to 1966. Thousands worked at the mine and processing mill. As they drilled seams of rock, and shovelled the asbestos into sacks, clouds of dust – so thick that floodlights were required at midday – swirled around them. They wore no protective gear.

It is not only former workers who have died, and continue to die, after inhaling the lethal fibres. Women who washed their husbands' overalls have been affected, too, along with children who played in pits of tailings.

Because of Wittenoom, Western Australia has the highest rate of mesothelioma and asbestos-related cancers in the world. Mine tailings were used to surface roads in the town and scattered over parks. Residents spread them on their yards to keep down the dust. They were also used to build the local airstrip. The government has now declared Wittenoom and the gorge a "contaminated zone". The town is no longer signposted off the highway, and maps advise people to avoid it.

Mario Hartmann and Gail Malcolm scoff at such warnings. Mr Hartmann moved to the area from Austria 18 years ago. The government has offered to buy his house on Fifth Avenue – another dusty, splintered road – for $43,000 (£21,000), a sum he considers insulting.

The population has dwindled over the decades, and eight people left when the power and water were withdrawn. Their homes, down to the concrete foundations, have been bulldozed and buried, along with former public buildings. "The policy now is that everything here is contaminated," says Mr Hartmann, 44, who chain-smokes hand-rolled cigarettes. "But it's the psychological battle that they're playing – burying things in front of us that were part of our town. They want to pretend the place never existed."

Ms Malcolm, 55, arrived in Wittenoom last year. It was her second stop on a caravan trip around Australia. She met Mr Hartmann and stayed on in the town, which inspired a song, "Blue Sky Mine", by the Australian band,Midnight Oil. The couple grow their own vegetables, and he shoots kangaroos. "It's a beautiful wilderness out here," says Ms Malcolm. "We do camp cooking outside at night. It's like an alternative lifestyle, and there's no rules. Sometimes we have the town to ourselves. It's like living on an island."

Residents still pay rates, but they receive no services. Government workers, including police, firemen and doctors, are forbidden from entering the town. When a bushfire threatened their homes two years ago, the locals requested help to keep it at bay. They were told that they were on their own.

The post office has closed, so mail must be collected from 10 miles away. In a medical emergency, townsfolk can summon a flying doctor, but must drive 25 miles to the nearest airstrip.

Lorraine Thomas, who runs the souvenir shop, recently lost her husband, Les. Forbidden from burying him in the Wittenoom cemetery, she had him cremated in Perth. She plans to bring his ashes home and put up a headstone, illegally, in the local graveyard. Mr Thomas, a long-time Wittenoom resident, died of lung cancer, but his widow dismisses any link with asbestos. "He was a heavy smoker until 1975," she says. The 65-year-old scrapes a living from the few tourists who visit her shop. The most popular item is a yellow bumper sticker stating: "I've been to Wittenoom and lived."

After the mine closed, the town survived thanks to a tourism industry based on the gorge. Local people blame the government for scaring tourists away.

Robert Vojakovic, president of the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia, sees things differently. "These are people who parachuted in after the mine closed and bought a house for nothing, seeking to profit from the notoriety of Wittenoom," he says. "They're luring other people into an unsafe environment."

Mr Vojakovic worked at the mine in 1961. He fought a long battle to win compensation for former workers from the mine's owners, CSR. He says 2,000 former Wittenoom residents have died from asbestos-related diseases, and predicts that another 5,000 will follow.

Among those already dead are three barmen from the Wittenoom pub, three former policemen, a bank clerk and a store manager. Then there is a woman who spent two days holidaying at the gorge, and a truck driver who camped in the town overnight, perhaps 10 times. Nine members of one family, English immigrants who lived and worked at Wittenoom, have died.

Asbestos was widely used in Australia, where it was deemed particularly practical, because of the hot climate and bushfire risk. The average incubation period for mesothelioma is 40 years. Asked about the risk in Wittenoom now, Professor Bill Musk, an eminent figure in the field of asbestos-related diseases in Perth, replies: "There is no safe level of asbestos exposure."

Even Wittenoom's remaining residents know the town has no future. Their fear is that the government will pass special legislation to purchase their homes compulsorily. "We're not harming the environment, and we've got everything here that we need," says Gail Malcolm. "We've got Utopia here. So leave us alone, we're happy as we are."

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