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The lights went out at 10am on Saturday, on the dot. Soon heavily dressed men with cherry pickers began to cut down the power lines. The last few residents of Wittenoom were receiving a personal message from their state government – please leave, now.
The old asbestos mining town is something of a forgotten embarrassment these days. After years of supplying Australia and the world with the ‘miracle fibre’ from deep in the heart of Western Australia’s Pilbara region, the link to lung cancers became all too clear and in 1966 the company closed the doors. According to the locals they just walked away without even bothering to take the mine records, which were left in their neat rows on the shelves of the abandoned mine offices. Most workers left then but some residents had come to love one of the most remote and beautiful areas of the country and stuck it out, hanging on for year after year in perhaps the emptiest corner of the nation.
They steadfastly refused the government offers for their homes and the relocation expenses that would go with the sale. They loved their small and self-reliant community and the people in it. Like the peasants of Chernobyl, they seemed prepared to accept the risk in the familiar and dug in their heels. Defiantly, they formed defence groups or ‘progress associations’ and tried to build the tourist trade, drawing in people to visit the magnificent gorges of the neighbouring Karinjini National Park – after all, they were the only town within 100 kilometres. But the press had been bad, the fear of the dust too great and one by one the key parts of the community disappeared; the school, the pub and the last motel, things that held them together. Soon even stalwarts were drifting away, selling to the only real buyer in the market and as the government bought each one out, the house was bulldozed with indecent haste. Now there is a grid of neat asphalted streets between vacant blocks and the tufts of Spinifex and drifts of purple Mulla Mulla fill the vacant blocks, spilling on to the roadways. Only eight full time residents remain so it was time, apparently, to pull the plug.
Lorraine runs the Gem Shop which is also the Post Office, general store and souvenir shop, She was fuming. For her it is all to do with globalisation and she claimed, “Soon no-one will be allowed to own property at all. Its true, you know – it’s in a book I’ve got.” But her views aren’t entirely popular in the town and others are more resigned to their fate although distressed and even tearful. Elke came here eight years ago from Germany after a back injury cut short her career as a technical journalist. She has found a similar property in a small community a couple of hours out of Perth where she hopes that similar small town values will prevail. But she’ll miss the place. She loves the gorge, Wittenoom’s main tourist attraction with its creek crossings and pools but the road has been washed out now in several places and there’s no way that it will be repaired given that there is a huge grey wall of blue asbestos tailings at one point along the track. The eroded mound has a strange and toxic beauty in the red landscape. Like Yampire Gorge next to it, once the gateway to the park (and home of a small white asbestos mine), it will be closed off to the public or allowed to become impassable. Elke feels that the attempts to build up the tourist trade made the state government even more determined to close the place down, fearful that an influx of visitors might lead to even more cases of cancer. Perhaps it would have been better for the residents to just keep quiet in the hope of being left alone.
Elke’s partner Paul is an electrician and so he is busy today, hooking up the hold-outs to generators. He once ran the caravan park and camp ground in the town before the visitor numbers dropped to almost nothing. He can’t find his ‘buzzer’ whatever that is and they’re waiting up at the convent to be connected. Not that there are any nuns in the dark up there as it is now a guest house for backpackers and other visitors and a delightfully relaxed place visited by the occasional wallaby or dingo, as well as young Germans and grey nomads. Paul is tense and he isn’t alone. Later in the day a young couple, film makers from Melbourne shooting a documentary on the town are threatened by a large and angry resident. Mario has lost his job running the power station and his frustration has boiled over into anger at what he sees as insensitive treatment by outsiders who are exploiting his friends. He tells them so in a stream of obscenities. Perhaps he’s right but he’s not really angry at them; they’re just in the way of a really bad day.
It’s a difficult problem. Some admit that the government is trying to help them and that the compensation is fair but still don’t want to go. Others take a wider view, pointing out that the tailings heaps are being washed out of the gorge by the four or five cyclones this year and it’s simply cheaper to move everyone out of the way - cheaper than actually trying to clean up the mess. The power workers are taking no chances. They’re wearing full body suits on these thirty degree winter days and all the equipment being removed will be trashed regardless of condition. The assumption is that dust could have settled on the poles and lines. If that’s true, perhaps they should wear their masks as well. For some of us Wittenoom has been around as an idea for most of our adult lives, the town where it all went wrong and some people really had to pay the price of progress. Most have forgotten the arguments and accusations now, the desperate times and dying ex-miners. Given that a cancer like mesothelioma can strike up to forty years after exposure, there are still victims around and perhaps still some to come but the place itself has virtually gone. The cemetery is overgrown with weeds and wildflowers though few are buried here as the original mining population all came from somewhere else – but there are still more residents lying here than there are left living in town. Only one marker, a memorial rather than a gravestone, mentions ‘Killed by the Dust’ but he lies buried in Perth and four of his mates in the town raised the stone. Other graves are marked with simple homemade plaques and crosses or are mere mounds hidden by the long, tough grass. No-one tends it now and only a grass-fire would reveal the community of the dead.
As you drive out of town along the rough road to Tom Price, the only sizeable town in the region, you can see the blueish band of asbestos ore sandwiched between the ironstone layers of the escarpment and wonder how much erodes and washes down into the plain naturally. The aboriginal community remains and they aren’t going anywhere. They’ve lived with the risk for millenia. But in town there’s just a shop, a few houses and the guest house grimly hanging on for now. And a new sound, the loud rattle and hum of generators.