Traditional Owners are calling on the WA Government to clarify plans for the clean-up of asbestos contamination in and around what was the town of Wittenoom.

Greens MP Brad Pettitt recently presented a petition to the Upper House on behalf of Banjima Elder Maitland Parker.

Dr Pettitt said the petition seeks to identify who is “legally and financially responsible for cleaning up the blue asbestos contaminated site”, which he called the most “dangerous contaminated site in the Asia-Pacific region”.

“The Banjima people gained Native Title over this contaminated site on March 14, 2014, and just want it cleaned up, they want their Country back,” he said.

“While thousands of whitefella workers in the mines have suffered, nothing compares to the suffering of the Aboriginal people of the area the Banjima, Guruma, Yindjibarndi, Ngarluma, Yinhawangka, Nyaparli and Palyku peoples.”

Mr Parker said despite successive WA governments “talking about cleaning up the mine for decades”, nothing has happened.

“After decades in the courts, Banjima people got Native Title but we didn’t get our Country. We were handed back the largest contaminated site in the southern hemisphere, with no support, help or plan to fix it,” he said.

“This is Australia’s biggest industrial disaster. It can’t be ignored any longer. We want our Country cleaned up and made safe for all people, for now and for future generations.”

As chair of the Banjima Native Title Aboriginal Corporation, Mr Parker is calling on the Government to determine the estimated cost of restoring the area in the Pilbara to the condition it was in prior to mining, and provide an intended date by which such work would be completed.

Comments provided to the National Indigenous Times by the State Government indicate there are no plans to fully remediate the area where blue asbestos was mined between the 1930s and1960s.

Stockpiles of mining waste material containing blue asbestos fibres remain on the site.

A single fibre can cause chronic lung conditions and cancers years after it’s inhaled. Contact with asbestos, because of mining in the area, has been linked to more than 2000 deaths.

Wittenoom was degazetted in 2007, meaning it’s excluded from official maps and instead of signs pointing to the town, there are “danger” signs to deter people entering.

The Wittenoom asbestos management area, which the WA Government has declared unsuitable for human occupation or use, covers more than 46,500 hectares and is within the Banjima Native Title area determined in 2014.

The National Indigenous Times understands the management area and relevant Wittenoom legislation is the responsibility of Lands Minister Tony Buti. Contaminated areas are Environment Minister’s Amber-Jade Sanderson’s responsibility.

Ms Sanderson is also responsible for air and water contamination.

Mr Parker told the National Indigenous Times he felt the State Government had avoided progressing the matter for years by referring to the need to pass the Wittenoom Closure Bill which will allow for compulsory acquisition of the remaining 14 privately owned buildings.

“The reaction we get back from government is, ‘oh, you’re going to cost us a lot of money’ but so what? We’re not worried about that, we’re worried about our Country that’s been contaminated and spoilt because of mining,” Mr Parker said.

He refers to the area by its traditional name, Nambigunha.

“When we talk about Country and culture, it’s not just a beautiful gorge that’s been ruined, our history and culture go a long way in that gorge and the surrounds,” Mr Parker said.

The petition presented to Parliament also calls for the Government to identify the party responsible for the site. Neither CSR nor Hancock Prospecting, companies connected to asbestos mining in the area, responded to questions from the National Indigenous Times.

The Banjima Native Title Aboriginal Corporation has also reached out to the State Government to discuss using funds from the Mining Rehabilitation Fund, set up to cover costs of rehabilitating abandoned mines in WA, for the clean-up.

The Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety oversees that fund. The responsibility for the fund falls to the Minister for Mines and Petroleum, Energy and Corrective Services Bill Johnston.

A State Government spokesman didn’t directly respond to questions about the fund’s use but said it would be “virtually impossible” to clean the area to a level that is safe for human habitation.

“There is no question that this area is one of the saddest chapters in WA history,” he said.

“However, we must be realistic, and the fact of the matter is that it is unlikely that Wittenoom will ever again be a safe place to visit.”

The spokesman confirmed a detailed estimate for the cost of cleaning up the site had not been sought.

Sam Walsh, an independent director on BNTAC’s board, said it was vital such work was done.

“There is a debate about the best way of dealing with this,” he said.

“Some people say if you cap those tailings piles with cement, that’ll do the trick, but it actually won’t.

“It’s a temporary fix . . . We need proper research, proper technology to deal with it.”

Mr Parker said the recent discovery of asbestos contamination outside of the Wittenoom management area provides even more reason to fully remediate the site.

In a letter sent to BNTAC earlier this year, the WA Department of Water and Environmental Regulation informed the organisation that “new asbestos impacts are beyond the current spacial extent of the WAMA” and “asbestos fibres are found in the highest concentrations in the stream channels”.

Mr Parker said the discovery proved his fear, that the contamination was spreading into waterways.

It’s unclear if the material found about two kilometres from the perimeter of the declared contaminated area had been left there during the mine’s tenure, or if it was dispersed in the years since.

A government spokesman confirmed tailings were moving downstream from the gorges with water flows. He said once the Wittenoom Closure Bill was passed, a steering committee would reconvene to progress “ongoing management options”.

The Banjima people will be invited to be involved.

Compensation

BNTAC is considering seeking compensation from the WA Government over the contamination of their land. Banjima chief executive Johanna Ramsay pointed to the Timber Creek case in the Northern Territory, where $2.5 million in compensation for economic, cultural, and spiritual loss and interest was awarded to Native Title holders.

“The Banjima people lost their Country to mining and then it got handed back years later in that condition,” Ms Ramsay said.

“There are synergies with what’s happened here, there may be a case for compensation moving forward.”

While the group said taking legal action to force the government or mining companies to clean up the area could be an option, they say they hope it would not come to that BNTAC is considering seeking compensation from the WA Government over the contamination of their land. Banjima chief executive Johanna Ramsay pointed to the Timber Creek case in the Northern Territory, where $2.5 million in compensation for economic, cultural, and spiritual loss and interest was awarded to Native Title holders.

“The Banjima people lost their Country to mining and then it got handed back years later in that condition,” Ms Ramsay said.

“There are synergies with what’s happened here, there may be a case for compensation moving forward.”

While the group said taking legal action to force the government or mining companies to clean up the area could be an option, they say they hope it would not come to that.

By Aleisha Orr