Newsletter for the Rotary Club of Western Endeavour - Issue No.: 922 Issue Date: 2 Aug, 2020

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Kids playing in a sand pit made of tailings loaded with blue asbestos

Mining of Wittenoom Crocidolite (Blue Asbestos) - Worst Industrial Tragedy in

Our member Dr Laurie Glossop gave members an interesting overview of the mining of Wittenoom Crocidolite (Blue Asbestos), the worst industrial tragedy in Australian history.

There were three mines in the area:

Yampire Mine

  • Operated 1938 to 1946. The mining area was first found by Lang Hancock and Peter Wright, but the Yampire Mine was started by Islwyn Walters and Walter Leonard.
  • Hancock also ran Mulga Downs Station
  • Produced about 300 tons of crocidolite and 15,000 waste
  • People mostly lived at the mine

Wittenoom Gorge Mine

  • Operated 1936 to 1958. Started by Hancock and Wright.
  • Produced about 20,000 tons of crocidolite and 600,000 tons of tailings and waste. About 12,000 tons of crocidolite is still in the waste
  • Mine Manager and senior staff lived at the Settlement and the new town of Wittenoom (8km away) started housing workers. The town of Wittenoom continued to expand.
  • In 1943 the Wittenoom Gorge Mine was sold by Hancock to Australian Blue Asbestos Ltd (known as ABA), a subsidiary of CSR.
  • Lang Hancock was asked by CSR to stay on as Mine Manager!

Colonial Gorge Mine

  • Operated 1953 to 1966
  • Produced about 130,000 tons of crocidolite and 2,400,000 tons of tailings and waste. About 40,000 tons of crocidolite is still in the waste
  • Most mine and mill employees lived in Wittenoom 
  • Throughout its operation high dust levels occurred, especially in the mill. Dr Jim McNulty repeatedly said there was going to be a huge number of people would die from asbestos exposures
  • Dust extraction and mine ventilation only really occurred just before it closed
  • Company asked for Government subsidy to compete against South African crocidolite. Wittenoom closed because it was uneconomic not health.  

Wittenoom Town

  • Started being built 1947 and town named Wittenoom in 1948 (Lang Hancock)
  • By 1951 there were150 houses……gots to about 180 over time
  • It was the largest town north of the Tropic of Capricorn at the time! 
  • The town has many facilities including a:

             # Primary School         # Hospital

            # Police Station            # Post office

            # Sporting Facilities      # Café

            # Cinema                      # Hotel – Fortescue Hotel

Workers filling bags of asbestos fibre with no respiratory protection

Wittenoom Gorge settlement 1966

            # Airport                         # Caravan Park

  • About 7,000 people worked in the Wittenoom Gorge and Colonial Mines over the operating years.
  • Most men lived in “houses” of 4 – 2 per room
  • More than half left Wittenoom within 3 months! 
  • Labour shortage meant bringing unemployed people from Europe (mainly Italy, Yugoslavia and Poland, but preferred short people because of 39" stopes. These people were indentured for 2 years and could only leave if they paid back CSR the fares and costs to get them to Australia. This did not happen as they were destitute
  • Town had about 5,000 residential people that did not work at the mine, but were exposed to crocidolite in many ways
  • Government decided to run down the town from 1978
  • Wittenoom de-gazetted in 2007

Health Effects from Asbestos

  • Main health effects are:
    • Mesothelioma (pleural and peritoneal)
    • Lung Cancer
    • Asbestosis (also silicosis at Wittenoom)
    • Pleural Plaques
    • Several other cancers – still debated

Wittenoom Deaths from Crocidolite

  •    Mesothelioma

            ABA Workers               312

            Non-ABA Workers          47

            Residents                        96

            Wharfies Pt Samson       23

            Wharfies Fremantle         46

            Total  meso to 2018     524

  • Lung Cancer   about 0.7 : 1 with mesothelioma

             Total Lung Cancer      370

Grand Total Deaths to Date approx. 900   

Although the mining of blue asbestos was a tragedy, the area of Karijini National Park is very beautiful and worth a visit. There's beautiful wildflowers, spectacular scenery and waterholes.    





Author: Judy Dinnison

Published: 26 January, 2019


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