Our Own Chernobyl

Words by: Luke Hickey

In approaching the 30th anniversary of the worst nuclear accident in human history, it’s important to acknowledge how industrial oversight blended with corporate apathy can have a disastrous human cost, even on domestic soil. The case of Wittenoom may not have had the same causes nor worldwide cultural impact as the Chernobyl catastrophe, but the similarities of their lingering effects still felt in the surrounding communities are chilling reminders that Western countries are guilty of the same sins of our Eastern counterparts. Located 1,106 kilometres from Perth, Wittenoom as a town doesn’t exist anymore, but the memories of it live on in archived photographs and asbestos-riddled lungs.

Wittenoom Mine in its heyday

Some history: Wittenoom was founded and named by Lang Hancock in 1947 as a means of housing and servicing the many employees who worked at the nearby Crocidolite, or blue asbestos, mine at Wittenoom Gorge. Owned by CSR (Colonial Sugar Refinery), the mine was highly profitable from the 1950’s to 60’s, as it was Australia’s only supplier of asbestos (some 161, 000 tonnes of asbestos were mined from 1943 to 1966). Indeed, much of the town’s buildings and roads were constructed from asbestos tailings from the nearby mine. You can probably see where this is going by now.

But it wasn’t until 1959 until health concerns were raised by a visiting Department of Health doctor. Dr. Jim McNulty repeatedly warned CSR of the dangers of asbestosis to miners as well as regular townspeople, however mining operations continued unabated until 1966 when it was finally closed down. The damage was already done by then, as thousands people were exposed to potentially lethal levels of blue asbestos almost a thousand times higher than occupationally regulated. It is estimated by 2020, almost a third of the people who passed through Wittenoom during the years of the mine’s operation would develop a fatal disease due to their exposure to hazardous asbestos fibres.

Children playing in blue asbestos. Yep.

There is absolutely no question that CSR knew that asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer were extremely likely results of working in conditions such as those they permitted in Wittenoom. (CSR’s knowledge was established in the Victorian and Western Australian courts through the judgements of asbestos-caused injury litigation). To this day, it is the single greatest industrial disaster in Australia’s history.

If you’re under 25 and find such a damning event hard to recall, don’t be surprised. Since the closure of the mine in 1966, the State Government has taken every measure possible to wipe the memory of Wittenoom from the Australian people. It started with plans in 1978 to phase out activity in the town as a response to the widespread contamination of blue asbestos in and around the town. Between 1978 and 1993 most of the town’s residents had relocated and almost every building was demolished.

In 1993 however, a State Government-commissioned report confirmed despite efforts to clean up the town, extensive contamination still remained. Despite a small number of defiant residents still living in the town, in 2006 the power grid to Wittenoom was turned off, and its official status as a town was removed in 2007. Road signs leading to the town were removed or blacked out, and where formerly a ‘Welcome to Wittenoom’ billboard stood, a dark reminder of its past now resides in its place. Gina Rinehart would have you believe her father Lang’s fortune came with the discovery of a massive iron-ore reserve in the Pilbara; the truth is much more sinister.

Wittenoom Mine in its heyday

Today, the ghost town of Wittenoom bears more resemblance to the infamous Zone of Alienation in Pripyat, another community built to service a major producer. The empty, half-demolished buildings, skull-and-bones signs urging people to turn back, and noticeable effects on local vegetation remind you more of a certain Soviet disaster than a good ol’ working-class Aussie town. A number of videos posted to YouTube by adventure-travel bloggers visiting the town in spite of the still-present health dangers highlight both the excitement and danger captivating tourists. One traveller, as he records his time exploring the town, wonders how many years he’s taking off his life simply by breathing in the air.

Wittenoom Mine in its heyday

It is hard to believe that such a disastrous yet avoidable incident occurred on Australian soil. An Us-and-Them mindset entrenched in our culture probably doesn’t help. After all, we’re Australians. Those commies probably built Chernobyl with cheap designs and socialist labour, right? We take care of our people and own our actions; we wouldn’t attempt to cut costs or avoid responsibility, right?

The truth is, we already did.