The legacy of a 1960s industrial asbestos mine site which devastated the lives of Aboriginal people and workers, many which fell victim to the deadly diseases mesathelioma and asbestosis, continues to be a thorn in the side of successive governments.
- Banjima elders call for action by miners and governments for Wittenoom mine waste remediation
- The mine tailings dumps in Nambigunha continue to pollute the Fortescue River environment since the mine closed in 1966
- Successive governments have tried and failed to put a rehabilitation plan into action after miners abandoned it
All have failed to take action over Wittenoom, left with a mess after asbestos miners walked away in 1966 without taking responsibility or undertaking remediation.
The Wittenoom Asbestos Management Area covers more than 46,000 hectares.
Inside the management area Nambigunha, or Wittenoom Gorge, is littered with monstrous piles of washed-out asbestos tailings.
Yampire Gorge inside the Karijini National Park also still contains asbestos piles, only five kilometres from nearby Kalamina Gorge where major concerts are held in the Pilbara tourist season.
It is the largest contaminated area in the southern hemisphere.
Country surrounding the old township of Wittenoom and Karijini National Park belongs to the Banjima native title holders of the Pilbara.
“It’s not only Banjima people, there’s Guruma people, Yindjibarndi people, Ngarluma people, Yinhawangka people, Nyaparli people and Palyku people that used to live in Wittenoom and worked in these mines as well,” said Banjima elder Maitland Parker.
Approximately seven kilometres as the crow flies from the Wittenoom ex-mine site is the Karijini Eco Retreat.
There, the waste is out of sight and mind of the many thousands of tourists who access the park each year.
Now, in 2021, Banjima elders say it has been long enough and want their country cleaned up.
There could not be a more appropriate time to call for the rehabilitation with this year’s NAIDOC Week theme ‘healing country’.
Many language groups affected
Elders Maitland and Slim Parker attended meetings in 2019 with the then-minister for Aboriginal affairs Ben Wyatt to make requests to have the asbestos-contaminated areas remediated to minimise future risk for people, but were met with only promises of ‘ongoing dialogue’.
He said the estimated billions of dollars it will cost to have the area rehabilitated is no excuse.
It is an almost impossible task, but Mr Parker said he was prepared to give up the native title of the gorge if the waste can be buried deep into the upper gorge to stop the pollution.
But it remains to be seen what is a practical solution.
“We are going to fight tooth and nail and take this to the highest level that we can.”
The tailings dumps have been blown by wind and rained on for decades, causing asbestos pollution to move down into the Fortescue River valley and catchment from Wittenoom Gorge after rains flush through the deep gorges of the Karijini National Park.
Mr Parker is concerned the country all the way to Millstream may be polluted, making it unsafe for Aboriginal people to do their cultural business while fishing, swimming, camping, and visiting the affected areas.
“The rain of past years all contributes to the flushing of these [Karijini] gorges down into the Fortescue Valley,” he said.
Aboriginal heritage questions
The Banjima Native Title Aboriginal Group group also has heritage concerns over a new iron ore mine proposed for Mulga Downs Station.
Wittenoom and Bee gorges also contain rich iron ore deposits and are being proposed for new mines.
While the government has been attempting to rewrite the Aboriginal Heritage Act since the Juukan Gorge disaster, Mr Parker is still concerned for the thousands of Banjima cultural artefacts housed in various containers outside of the region by miners.
Healing country is an aspiration that may be beyond immediate reach of those currently suffering from mesothelioma like Maitland Parker, but he wants mining companies and the government to take action to clean up the toxic waste dump left leaching in Wittenoom.
“It won’t give us complete closure but at least it’s a path in the right direction,” he said.
The Banjima Native Title Aboriginal Corporation wrote to the Minister for Lands earlier this year requesting use of the Mining Rehabilitation Fund to clean up the mine site.
In a reply, the minister said he had passed the request on the Minister for Mines, Bill Johnston, for consideration.
Although Yampire and Wittenoom gorges are officially closed to the public, these areas are still accessed by unauthorised people camping.
In a statement, Lands Minister Dr Tony Buti said the Banjima people — who have native title rights and hold significant cultural sites in the area — will be invited to the steering committee during next sitting of Parliament when the Wittenoom Closure Bill is reintroduced.
The Bill was passed by the Legislative Assembly in August 2019 but did not pass the Legislative Council before Parliament was dissolved ahead of the 2021 state election.
“The Wittenoom Steering Committee will reconvene to progress ongoing management options and advise the state government on what actions could be considered to maintain public safety in the area and reduce ongoing impact on country,” Dr Buti said.