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