Doughty residents fight to keep their Outback town on the map

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 April, 2007, 12:00am

It swelters in temperatures up to 48 degrees Celsius, has no mains power or water and is 130km from the nearest pub, but a stubborn Australian ghost town is fighting an attempt to wipe it off the map.

Australia is littered with former mining towns that were abandoned once their gold, copper or silver was exhausted. But Wittenoom, in Western Australia, is set to become the first mining settlement in the country's history to be forcibly closed down.

The dusty outpost, 1,500km north of Perth, grew rich on mining asbestos and once boasted a population of 1,500. But since its mines closed in the early 1970s, the number of inhabitants has dwindled, until now just eight die-hards remain - six men and two women with an average age of 62.

They are entirely self-sufficient, running diesel-powered generators for electricity and pumping water from underground bores.

The state government wants to call in the bulldozers because it says asbestos contamination makes Wittenoom too dangerous to inhabit.

It will move this month to have the town 'de-gazetted', allowing road signs to be pulled down and the name removed from all maps. The remaining houses will be destroyed and the road into the town dug up.

The stubborn locals, who insist the asbestos poses no risk, suggest dark motives for the government's determination to turf them out.

'There's iron ore throughout these ranges. My view is that they want to open up new mines and we're in the way,' said Meg Timewell.

The residents have dismissed as paltry the A$50,000 (HK$320,000) they were each offered to relocate. Western Australia is enjoying a mining boom fuelled by China's growth, and property prices have soared.

'You couldn't even build a dunny [outside toilet] for that much. I'm determined more than ever not to go because of the way we've been treated,' Mrs Timewell said.

Four reports since 1986 found the risk of asbestos-related illness in the town was acceptably low, but the present government says they were politically motivated and unreliable.

'This is the worst asbestos-contaminated site in the world,' regional development minister Jon Ford said. 'Instead of using sand as a building material, they used asbestos - it's in the roads, in the dirt, under the houses.




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