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OPINION: Blue sky spin and bias hides toxic legacy

Tom Zaunmayr -

Imagine if someone rented your house, threw multiple parties, pulled paint from the walls, ruined the carpets and destroyed the house entirely.

Then when their tenancy was up, they handed the keys back with no compensation, no repairs or replacements, and no accountability?

You'd want, at the very least, to use the bond to repair it to a liveable condition.

In 2014, when the Banjima people had their Native Title determination, the court recognised that they held sovereign right to their Country.

But in the very heart of their Country, there are massive areas of contaminated and currently unusable land.

This land is a real and present danger to humans and wildlife and the WA state government is simply moving too slowly to remediate the damage that has occurred on its watch.

The Wittenoom Asbestos Management Area is almost 47,000ha or about 20 times the size of the Perth local government area or one and a half times the size of the country of Malta.

This land to the north of Karijini National Park is affected by lethal asbestos contamination from three historic and now abandoned mines that began mining about 100 years ago.

The Wittenoom, Colonial and Vampire mines and their owners have long gone and now the land sits brooding and menacing as the source of ongoing asbestos contamination.

Mountains of asbestos tailings scar the land and in rain events the killer fibres are left to wash into the environment downstream where they dry and become airborne.

The moral responsibility for cleaning up this mess belongs to the state, which owns the mineral rights.

The WA Government was handed a report by respected engineering consultants GHD in 2006 which outlined the controls that needed to put in place to make the land safe again.

Yet in 2021, 15-years later, the state says the highest priorities for legacy mining rehabilitation are elsewhere and Wittenoom is not on the list for funding from the Mining Rehabilitation Fund. This fund collects bonds from mining companies to deal with legacy abandoned mines.

On introducing the Wittenoom Closure Bill earlier this year to move on the last two non-Aboriginal residents of the town, Lands Minister Tony Buti described it as "one of Australia's worst industrial disasters that led to thousands of deaths and classification of the area as the largest contaminated site in the southern hemisphere".

Minister Buti was right on that count.

However, perhaps demonstrating his greenness as a Minister or lack of familiarity with the graveness of the issue, he went on to say that the Wittenoom Closure Bill was a significant step forward to resolve this longstanding industrial tragedy and would put an end to a "dark period in our State's mine closure history".

But it won't be the end.

And blue skies don't mean healthy Country.

When push comes to shove, the Wittenoom Closure Bill gives effect to just one of the 24 recommendations made by GHD in 2006.

The National Indigenous Times is supporting the Banjima people's efforts to address this living nightmare on their Country, as the state sit on their hands and watch the interest accrue on about $200 million in the Mining Rehabilitation Fund.

From this fund only half a million dollars has actually been spent on rehabilitation actual mining areas, with a total of zero on Wittenoom.

Despite the spin on the matter, no praise should be given to a government who only acts on one of 24 recommendations, 15-years too late.

This is a state shame and a national disgrace.

The Banjima people deserve better, Mark McGowan has held COVID-19 public safety as the state's highest priority, the same should be for the health of Banjima and all West Australians in regard to asbestos fibres.

It's time to put aside the bias, the political game, and work to address the largest contaminated site in the southern hemisphere.

It's time to use the Mining Rehabilitation Fund for its purpose - rehabilitate Banjima Country.

The Banjima deserve better than this Blue Sky Spin and Bias from the WA Government.

By Wayne Bergmann and Clinton Wolf

Wayne Bergmann and Clinton Wolf are the owners of the National Indigenous Times.


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