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Wittenoom:  Asbestos contamination and management

 

The Wittenoom area is affected by asbestos contamination derived from historical mining activities in three locations (Wittenoom Mine, Colonial Mine and Yampire Mine). The mines operated in the area during the 1930's up until 1966 and produced waste material called tailings, which contain varying amounts of residual blue asbestos fibres (crocidolite).  

The stockpiles of tailings have been eroded and dispersed over the years since the mining operations have ceased and now extend for several kilometres downstream from the actual mine sites. Tailings were also historically removed from the stockpiles and used on roads and around the townsite as fill.

In 1978, the State government began phasing down the former town of Wittenoom because of concerns over health risks from the presence of airborne asbestos fibres. In June 2007 - Hon Jon Ford MLC, then Minister for Regional Development, announced that the town site had officially been de-gazetted.

Remnants of blue asbestos (the most deadly of all types of asbestos) are still present throughout the Wittenoom Asbestos Contaminated Area, presenting a serious risk to human health.

 

Background and history

The Wittenoom area is affected by asbestos mine tailings from three mines (Wittenoom, Colonial and Yampire) that operated in the area during the 1930's to 1966. The mine tailings contain blue asbestos fibres (crocidolite) and extend for several kilometres downstream from the actual mine sites.

In 1978, the State government began phasing down the former town of Wittenoom because of concerns over health risks from the presence of airborne asbestos fibres.

An independent report on asbestos contamination in Wittenoom underlined the need to close Wittenoom. In this report, dated 25 October 1978, the Commissioner of Public Health, Dr J.C McNulty recommended to government that:

"The government should make clear to residents the possible risks involved in remaining at Wittenoom for any length of time and should take all possible steps to ensure the town is phased out of existence and all buildings ultimately removed or demolished."

In the 1980's, more than 70 houses were demolished and tailings were removed from town site reserves.

In the 1990's, the police station, Dumas Motel, Shell garage, nursing post, Fortescue Hotel and airport were all closed. The materials from the demolished buildings were subsequently buried at the Wittenoom airstrip site in 1996.

In 2002, the Western Australian government established the Wittenoom Steering Committee, comprising of members from several State government departments, to develop a strategy to deal with asbestos contamination in and around Wittenoom and to accelerate the phase down of activities in the former town.

In 2004, minesite infrastructures were demolished and buried, together with 400,000m3 of heavily asbestos contaminated material, in the Wittenoom Gorge.

In 2006, the Wittenoom Steering Committee commissioned geotechnical and engineering consultants GHD and Parsons Brinckerhoff to compile a detailed report into the nature and extent of asbestos contamination in the Wittenoom area. The report found that exposure to asbestos in the Wittenoom area, which has resulted in thousands of fatalities, continues to present a potential risk to the people that might use the area.

On 29 May 2006, the government endorsed recommendations by the Wittenoom Steering Committee as the most appropriate long term solutions for Wittenoom including, amongst other things, land in the Wittenoom area should be vested with an appropriate body to ensure adequate management is exercised over the area.

On 1 July 2006, the provision of electricity ceased in Wittenoom and in June 2007. Australia Post also ceased delivery and closed the Wittenoom community postal agency.

In June 2007 - Hon Jon Ford MLC, the then Minister for Regional Development, announced that the town site had officially been degazetted.

In January 2008 the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) in consultation with the Department of Health (DoH), classified the Wittenoom area, (including the Wittenoom town site, Wittenoom airfield, Wittenoom Gorge, Yampire Gorge, and the Joffre Creek flood plain) comprising an area of 46,840ha, as 'Contaminated - Remediation Required'. This area is deemed by DEC and DoH in its current state to be "not suitable for any form of human occupation or land use".

In February 2008, DEC registered memorials against all certificates of title in Wittenoom classifying that the land is a "Contaminated Site – remediation required" pursuant to section 58 of the Contaminated Sites Act 2003. The memorial also notes that any instruments affecting that particular land could not be registered or accepted for registration unless the CEO of the DEC consents to the registration.

In 2010 the Department of Regional Development and Lands (RDL) commissioned an ethnographic and archaeological study of the Wittenoom locale in order to ascertain the significance of the area and heritage sites to Aboriginal people.

In April 2011 a Technical Workshop was convened to develop a priority ranking of the seven identified Wittenoom sites, and, to assess remediation/management options for each of the identified sites.

In August 2012 the RDL obtained a grant from DEC Contaminated Sites Management Account for pursuing remediation studies on high risk areas at Wittenoom.

In March 2013 RDL awarded a contract to GHD for determining the most appropriate method (including costs estimations) of remediation/management for the three highest risk sites at Wittenoom, including; Wittenoom Mine, Colonial Mine and the Wittenoom Gorge. These areas hold the largest quantities of contaminated tailings and also contain culturally significant sites for local indigenous people.

 

Wittenoom asbestos management area

The Wittenoom asbestos management area covers an area of 46,840 hectares of land and includes the former townsite, mining areas, Wittenoom Gorge and Joffre Floodplain. This entire area has been classified by the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) in 2008 as a contaminated site under the Contaminated Sites Act 2003.

The area was declared by DEC and the Department of Health to be "not suitable for any form of human occupation or land use".

Map of Wittenoom contaminated area
 

 

Health risks in Wittenoom

As a result of past mining activity in Wittenoom, tiny asbestos fibres remain on the ground and in the air.

The asbestos fibres have been dispersed throughout the area by wind and water erosion of tailings stockpiles at the former mining areas as well as historical use of the tailings for road base and fill around the townsite. The asbestos can be carried by wind and water, and can be disturbed by human activities such as walking or driving through the area, making them easy to inhale.

Exposure to asbestos fibres may result in contracting a fatal disease, such as mesothelioma, asbestosis or lung cancer.

Symptoms of these diseases may not be apparent for extended periods of time after exposure.

Asbestos fibres from past mining operations in Wittenoom have already resulted in thousands of fatalities among miners, residents and visitors to the town.

STAY SAFE. DO NOT TRAVEL TO WITTENOOM.

 

For further information please visit the Department of Health's website at:

Contaminated Sites

Asbestos in the home

 

 

Recent State government actions

The Department of Lands (DoL) is leading a coordinated state government approach to manage asbestos in Wittenoom. Recent actions include:

2006: The State government engaged environmental consultants GHD/Parsons Brinckerhoff to undertake an assessment of the extent of asbestos contamination in the Wittenoom location.

2008: The Department of Environment and Conservation classified the area as contaminated- remediation required under the Contaminated Sites Act 2003. They also placed memorials against all certificates of title for properties in Wittenoom.

2010: The Department of Regional Development and Lands (RDL), now DoL, commissioned an ethnographic and archaeological study of the Wittenoom area to ascertain the significance of the area and heritage sites to Aboriginal people.

2011: A technical workshop was convened by RDL to develop a priority ranking of the seven identified Wittenoom sites and to assess remediation/management options for each of the identified sites.

2012: RDL reconvened the Wittenoom Steering Committee requesting required agencies to nominate a designated staff member to the project.

2013: RDL held the first Wittenoom Steering Committee on 23 April 2013.

2013: DoL engaged environmental consultants GHD to undertake feasibility studies on the preferred remediation options for the three highest risk sites at Wittenoom, including; Wittenoom Mine, Colonial Mine and the Wittenoom Gorge.

2013: DoL is currently working with relevant agencies and stakeholders to raise awareness of the risks posed by Wittenoom to the general public and local Aboriginal people and assess long term solutions for the management of the area.

 

Wittenoom steering committee

In December 2012, the Department of Regional Development and Lands reconvened the Wittenoom Steering Committee to coordinate the resolution of issues concerning the residual asbestos in and around the Wittenoom town site including:

  • The complete closure of the town of Wittenoom
  • Management of the existing sites contaminated with asbestos, and determining the standards for remediation and desired end land use.
  • Minimising the public health and safety risks of asbestos fibres to the traditional owners, and the general public, and
  • To develop and implement an across government communications strategy on the Wittenoom asbestos issues.

In April 2013 the first meeting of the reconvened Wittenoom Steering Committee took place.

The steering committee includes representatives from the following organisations:

Department of Lands - Contaminated Sites Branch and Legal Services 

Department of Health

Department of Environment Regulation

Department of Mines and Petroleum

Department of Aboriginal Affairs

Landcorp

Main Roads WA

State Solicitor's Office

 

Alternative destinations to visit in the Pilbara

There are many beautiful destinations in the Pilbara to visit including:

Karijini National Park

Karijini National Park is one of Western Australia's largest national parks and arguably one of the most spectacular. Unbeatable for adventure, the park is famous for its sheer gorges, waterfalls and cool swimming holes.

Tom Price

Nestled deep in the Hamersley Ranges, at the base of the beautiful Mt Nameless, is the town of Tom Price. Tom Price is a picturesque, modern and fully serviced town designed to blend into the natural environment and is a great destination during the sunny winter months.

Nullagine & Marble Bar

With the discovery of gold in 1888, and later diamond and gem stones, Nullagine is unspoilt nature and is a must for the traveller seeking true four wheel adventure and off the beaten track wilderness. Stop in Marble Bar to visit the historic gold rush mining town and the Comet Mine.

 

For further information please go to the Department of Tourism website.

 

 

For more information on Wittenoom:

Department of Lands (Contaminated Sites)

140 William Street, Perth

PO Box 1143, West Perth 6872

+61 8 6552 4400

E   Wittenoom@lands.wa.gov.au

 

For information on the health effects of asbestos:

Department of Health (Environmental Health Directorate)

+61 8 9388 4999

www.health.wa.gov.au

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Relevant documents

 

Brochure

Frequently Asked Questions

GHD/PB 2006 Report into the management of asbestos contamination in Wittenoom (Non-technical summary)