Wit­tenoom lo­cals in for a fight

Pilbara News - - Front Page - Liam Croy

He lives in a ghost town with a deadly past and an un­cer­tain future, but there’s nowhere Peter Hey­ward would rather be.

If he isn’t at home in the for­mer Wit­tenoom town­site, you might find him swim­ming or net­ting yab­bies at one of the wa­ter­holes in the gorge.

The 59-year-old goes camp­ing reg­u­larly, as many would if they lived at the north­ern edge of Kar­i­jini Na­tional Park.

The State Gov­ern­ment wants him off the land as soon as pos­si­ble, along with other long-time residents Lor­raine Thomas and Mario Hart­mann.

They are the last hu­man rem­nants of a degazetted town un­like any other.

Last week marked the 50th an­niver­sary of the end of blue as­bestos min­ing in Wit­tenoom.

The Colo­nial Sugar Re­fin­ing com­pany even­tu­ally closed its min­ing op­er­a­tions in the fi­nal days of 1966, end­ing one dark chap­ter of WA’s his­tory and open­ing an­other.

Most work­ers and residents were quick to leave when the health dangers be­came clear but some stuck around.

A decade af­ter au­thor­i­ties cut power to the town, only four peo­ple live there per­ma­nently — Ms Thomas, Mr Hart­mann, Mr Hey­ward and his part­ner Nikki Lock­wood.

What once was the Pil­bara’s big­gest town is slowly re­turn­ing to na­ture. Some tourists who visit de­spite health warn­ings are en­chanted by the haunt­ing nat­u­ral beauty.

Mario Hart­mann wants to stay. Oth­ers feel a sense of melan­choly be­cause lit­tle has been done to rid the area of as­bestos tail­ings or hon­our the dead. Mr Hey­ward fell in love with Wit­tenoom when he was work­ing in Newman.

He has not been tempted by any of the Gov­ern­ment’s of­fers to buy him out. “It’s the land and the coun­try around here, that’s what I like,” he said.

“I can’t ac­tu­ally find any­where else that’s as nice and that com­pares with it.”

A year ago, the Gov­ern­ment an­nounced it wanted to pass com­pul­sory ac­qui­si­tion laws in case ne­go­ti­a­tions failed.

Act­ing Lands Min­is­ter Bren­don Grylls con­firmed re­cently the laws were still be­ing drafted. Just be­fore Christ­mas Mr Hey­ward had a call from an of­fi­cial.

“They were talk­ing about com­pul­sory ac­qui­si­tion and they said, ‘It looks like we have the abil­ity’. ‘Looks like’ and ‘have the abil­ity’ are two dif­fer­ent things,” Mr Hey­ward said.

He be­lieves min­ing is the main rea­son the Gov­ern­ment wants them gone, rather than the pub­lic health risk that he says is over­stated.

The En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency has granted Rio Tinto con­di­tional ap­proval to run a rail line near the town for its Koodaideri iron ore mine.

The ap­proval came de­spite the Shire of Ash­bur­ton’s con­cerns about the health of work­ers, mem­bers of the pub­lic and Ban­jima tra­di­tional own­ers.

Other min­ing com­pa­nies have ex­plo­ration li­cences in the area.

“It is all to do with min­ing,” Mr Hey­ward said. “If min­ing wants to go ahead, I’m sure the laws will change ... it’s not just a health is­sue.”

Mr Hey­ward would con­sider leav­ing if the money was right, but he is not hold­ing his breath.

He knows he would be out of his depth in a le­gal bat­tle.

“I don’t re­ally know how to fight against gov­ern­ments and min­ing com­pa­nies,” he said.

Aus­trian im­mi­grant Mr Hart­mann lives a street away from Mr Hey­ward in a home he has been in for 27 years.

He shares his neigh­bour’s view that min­ing is in some way be­hind the rel­a­tively re­cent moves to degazette the town and pur­sue com­pul­sory ac­qui­si­tion.

Mr Hart­mann re­spects the dangers of as­bestos but does not be­lieve the place is any­where near as con­tam­i­nated as it was 50 years ago.

But Mr Grylls and shadow lands min­is­ter Peter Tin­ley re­jected the idea min­ing had any­thing to do with ef­forts to close Wit­tenoom to the pub­lic.

Mr Hart­mann, 52, has turned down the Gov­ern­ment’s lat­est com­pen­sa­tion fig­ure, which he says was framed as a fi­nal of­fer.

He doubts whether they can even pass com­pul­sory ac­qui­si­tion laws. If they do — and the money is not good enough — he will fight be­cause he be­lieves his life­style is worth fight­ing for. “It’s a beau­ti­ful place,” Mr Hart­mann said. “You live with na­ture.”

Ms Thomas is the town’s long­est-stand­ing res­i­dent.

Wit­tenoom had about 100 peo­ple when she moved in more than 30 years ago.

The Ash­bur­ton Shire coun­cil­lor says the town­site is less dan­ger­ous than ar­eas closer to main at­trac­tions in Kar­i­jini.

Shire pres­i­dent Kerry White would like to see the Gov­ern­ment pay the residents a fair sum or leave them alone.

If Mr Grylls’ com­ments prove true, it is only a mat­ter of time be­fore an­other chap­ter of Wit­tenoom’s his­tory comes to an end.

“Spe­cific leg­is­la­tion is be­ing cre­ated that will en­able the State Gov­ern­ment to com­pul­so­rily ac­quire re­main­ing free­hold lots,” he said. “Prior to the law com­ing into ef­fect, re­main­ing landown­ers will again be in­vited to reach an agree­ment on the vol­un­tary ac­qui­si­tion of their prop­er­ties.”

It’s the land and the coun­try around here ... I can’t find any­where else that’s as nice and that com­pares with it. There’s some­thing very spe­cial up here. Peter Hey­ward

Mario Hart­man, one of Wit­tenoom's last re­main­ing residents, in his front gar­den with one of two iron buck­ets he sal­vaged from the long-aban­doned as­bestos mine in Wit­tenoom Gorge.

Pic­tures: Nic El­lis

Peter Hey­ward, one of Wit­tenoom's last re­main­ing residents. Mt Watkins is the spec­tac­u­lar back­drop to the town.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.