The tragedy of ‘Australia’s Chernobyl’
What was once a thriving mining community nestled in a small town in Western Australia now lays almost abandoned, surrounded by daunting signs warning people to stay out.
Wittenoom is no longer printed on any official maps, and all road signs that used to bear its name have long been removed.
It is regarded as the most contaminated site in the southern hemisphere and has previously been labelled "Australia's Chernobyl".
The town was originally built to support the mining of blue asbestos, and during the 1950s it was Pilbara's largest town and Australia's only supplier of asbestos until the early 1960s.
During its peak, there were around 20,000 residents in Wittenoom. Now just two people remain.
The mine was shut down in 1966 due to a declining profitability and growing concerns about the health risks associated with asbestos mining.
By that time it was far too late for many residents who had been exposed to a deadly amount of asbestos.
To date, about 2000 former Wittenoom residents are believed to have died from asbestos-related illnesses, with many more developing diseases like mesothelioma and cancer.
A report commissioned by the Liberal government in Western Australia in 1994 described the level of contamination in the area as "disgraceful, even by the standards of the day".
Another report, commissioned 12 years later by the Labor state government, warned anyone living in or visiting the area was at an extreme risk of asbestos exposure.
It also found the asbestos had been spread by rain and erosion, causing nearby creeks to be contaminated.
The report noted this issue would only get worse unless the asbestos tailings dumps were cleaned up.
Houses and belongings were left abandoned as people rushed to flee the contaminated town as more information emerged about just how deadly the situation was.
In 2006, the government shut down the power supply to Wittenoom, and the following year it was officially degazetted and removed from official maps and road signs.
The State Government was able to voluntarily buy out many of the properties but made the decision to introduce the Wittenoom Closure Bill 2019 to enable the compulsory acquisition of the rest of the properties people were refusing to give up.
When the bill was introduced earlier this year there were three people still living in Wittenoom.
Since then one has accepted the Government's offer and another is in negotiations. However, one resident is still refusing to comply with the process.
Minister for Lands and Aboriginal Affairs, Ben Wyatt, urged residents to take the Government's offer as the town was still an incredibly dangerous place for people to live.
"It is important to understand that when the Wittenoom mine closed there were three million tonnes of asbestos tailings left behind in the gorge and surrounding area," he said.
"Exposure to a single fibre of these tailings could prove fatal. Therefore, as disappointing as it is, it is virtually impossible to clean the area to a level where it would then be considered safe for human habitation."
BECOMING A TOURIST HOTSPOT
Despite the town's deadly history and the lingering asbestos contamination, it has become an increasingly popular tourist spot.
Curious explorers continually ignore the warning signs placed outside the town to visit and take photos of the abandoned homes, businesses and cars.
Karoline Schaefer, a photographer based in Germany, recently visited Wittenoom while on a trip to Australia.
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Another bucket list place. A lost place. Ages ago I’ve read about #Wittenoom, a little abandoned mining town at the north of #karijininationalpark. In the 1950s this mine was mining blue asbestos which was discovered by a german lady in 1888 and later used in early gas masks and cigarette buts. It’s been the only blue asbestos mining town in Australia for quite a while. Years after mining many workers got serious health issues and in 1966 the mine was finally closed. In the early 2000 the Western Australian councils decided to wipe the town out of most maps due to the serious health risks in the area. But until today a handful of people are still living in the little village or what’s left of it. I could hear a diesel generator running which was gaining power for one of the little shads covered in ‘KEEP OUT’ signs. Some of you might have seen the report @galileo put out a few weeks ago. But let me tell you, this place ain’t that isolated. It’s super close to one of the most famous Western Australian National Parks and the next town, or at least roadhouse, isn’t far off. These people live less isolated than I lived while working in Paynes Find. But the very few citizens will probably see less people on a daily bases even though Wittenoom is becoming a hotspot for urban explorers. The lady from the visitor center on the other hand had a clear warning for us ‘Don’t go there. It’s not safe.’ And she ain’t completely wrong. Leftover asbestos is still present in and around Wittenoom. We didn’t drive down to the mine or the #wittenoomgorge. Quite a few people do though and take a dip into the ice cold water and will explore what’s left of the mine. At no time I felt unsafe or scared but I didn’t wanted to push my luck plus it was getting late anyway. So we only took a few pictures, drove around town for a few minutes and kept traveling north. What a place. If you are ever close by, don’t miss out on it but don’t just go here on purpose unless you have time and you are seriously into #urbex. There’s not a lot here for the average backpacker to be honest... 🌑🚫😷 #travelphotography #westernaustralia #australia #australien #backpacking #lostplace #karijini #urbex
She told news.com.au she first read about the town in an article about urban exploring in Australia and decided to go while visiting the Karijini National Park, which is close by.
Ms Schaefer said she was aware about the potential health risks before going, but that didn't deter her.
"Life is a risk. Whatever you do. You can cross the road and get hit by a truck. You can go skydiving and your parachute won't open. You can decide to get pregnant and die at giving birth," she said.
"At the end of the day life is a risk for itself. So it doesn't make any difference whether you go or not."
While Ms Schaefer thinks people should be aware of the potential risks, she noted residents were still living in the area who hadn't yet been affected by the asbestos.
"The fact that there's still people living there since like forever, people that did not die of the asbestos yet, proves that it isn't gonna kill you straight away," she said.
She also had a message for the people who contacted her on social media questioning her decision to visit the town.
"To those folks that thought it's a good idea to message me on Instagram blaming me for my decisions … calm your horses and mind your own business," Ms Schaefer said.
But Mr Wyatt insists people need to take the danger involved in visiting the town more seriously.
He said the contamination was so widespread taxpayers could "literally spend billions of dollars" to clean up the town and it would still be inhabitable.
"I have a simple message for anyone thinking of travelling to Wittenoom. Don't. These warnings signs are not there for decoration or to add your Instagram collection," Mr Wyatt said.
"They are serious warnings about serious health consequences. I can't stress enough that it is particularly foolish to travel to Wittenoom.
"There are plenty of gorges in WA which do not bring with them the threat of fatal consequences."