• Decades after the end of mining, thousands of tonnes of toxic blue asbestos tailings continue to contaminate Banjima country in WA's Pilbara region. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Asbestos contamination from Wittenoom has impacted Rio Tinto's construction of its railway line to its $2.6 billion iron ore project in the Pilbara. The Banjima Traditional Owners say the waste should have been cleaned up years ago.
Karen Michelmore

The Point
17 Aug 2021 - 12:39 PM  UPDATED 7 Sep 2021 - 4:43 PM

The Banjima call it poison Country, meaning bad Country.

Tonnes of highly toxic blue asbestos blanket Wittenoom Gorge, known as Nambiguna, in the Pilbara.

These rare photos show the shocking extent of the dangerous waste, still out in the open and largely untouched, 60 years after asbestos mining ceased here.

The WA Government itself has condemned it as the largest contaminated site in the Southern Hemisphere, but is yet to move to clean it up.

Banjima Traditional Owner Maitland Parker says the Banjima people have been asking the WA Government to get rid of the pollution for a decade.

"It's simple - clean the place up is our message," Mr Parker says.

"We've had enough of it. We've seen too many of our people die from it - not only my people, white people have died from it as well."

Rio Tinto's iron ore rail line disrupted

But there's a new sense of urgency to the Banjima's long pleas to clean up the site.

The contamination sparked a halt to work on the rail line to Rio Tinto's $2.6 billion Gudai-Darri iron ore mine (formerly known as Koodaideri), which runs through the 46,000 hectare Wittenoom Asbestos Management Area (WAMA).

Rio Tinto found "fibrous materials" at two small sections of a 28km section of the track, and notified the WA Government.

In May the government classified it as a contaminated site, with remediation required.

The asbestos was found outside the vast Wittenoom Asbestos Management Area, declared in 2008 because of the serious risk to human health.

Areas are "very low risk"

Rio Tinto said construction work ceased to allow for a proper assessment, and 1823 soil samples and 2039 air samples were taken.

But the 178km Gudai-Darri rail line remains on track for completion later this year.

"The safety and wellbeing of our employees, contractors and communities is our number one priority at all times," Rio Tinto said in a statement.

"Rio Tinto has managed naturally occurring asbestos in the Pilbara for more than 50 years, to ensure it does not present any risks to the health or safety of our workforce, or the communities in which we operate.

"Rio Tinto identified two small sections (six per cent of a 28km section of the overall rail line) along the Gudai-Darri rail like route, with fibrous materials at surface.

"According to the Department of Health's Health Impact Assessment Framework, both areas are defined as 'very low risk'."

The WA Government's website says the stockpiles of the Wittenoom mine tailings have eroded by wind and water and been dispersed over the years, and now extend for several kilometres downstream from the former mines.

It says tiny asbestos fibres remain on the ground and in the air.

A spokesman says the state government will continue to work with all stakeholders to manage risks of known contamination outside the Wittenoom Asbestos Management Area.

Shire of Ashburton President Kerry White expressed concerns that raw asbestos continues to contaminate the land and river systems in the area.

"We will work with the State Government to ensure the safe return of the area's natural beauty, as one of the most spectacular ancient land formations in WA," she says in a statement.

Elders worry for the future

Maitland Parker says the impact of the asbestos legacy has been devastating to the Banjima people and neighbouring Aboriginal groups.

The smallest fibres, when airborne, have already killed thousands, long after they were exposed.

"I was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2016, and it's a miracle I'm still here," Maitland Parker says.

"It's my will that's keeping me going, to fight this blasted thing.

"A lot of my people have been affected by it, have died from it as well."

When mining ceased 60 years ago, companies forfeited their leases to the WA Government, abandoning the masses of contamination.

He remembers, when he was a kid, walking over the tailings, and there are stories of children playing in the waste.

"They are the things we think about now for the younger generations - if that happens to our younger mob, they are not going to last too long."

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Ngalia man and chair of the National Native Title Council Kado Muir issued a scathing review of the proposed changes.

Parts of his traditional country are too dangerous to enter.

"Nambiguna Gorge itself is very significant to us," Mr Parker says.

"There's lot of sites and there and lots of swimming holes where people used to recreate in the past, and now we can't get in there to do any of that stuff."

The government this month introduced new laws into WA Parliament to compulsorily buy back the final remaining properties in the nearby decommissioned town of Wittenoom in a bid to prevent tourists from visiting.

But there was no mention of any cleanup for the contaminated Banjima country.

The government says once the laws pass, the State Government will tender for demolition works and remove the last structures at the former Wittenoom townsite.

It says a steering committee will then look at ongoing management options and what actions will be considered to maintain public safety and reduce the ongoing impact on Country.

"Given the Native Title rights and significant cultural sites in the area, the Banjima People will be invited to engage with the Steering Committee," a government spokesman says.

Boost to Banjima 

The Banjima have appointed the former head of global mining giant Rio Tinto Sam Walsh to the board of the Banjima Native Title Aboriginal Corporation (BNTAC) to help their fight, and improve communication with current day mining companies.

Mr Walsh says its remarkable the asbestos miners were allowed to leave the site as it was when they left.

"It is an extraordinary situation," Mr Walsh says.

"Coming from a mining company, I'm used to the expectation by the government and the community that you rehab and clean up as you go.

"But there's never been a clean up. This needs to happen.

"It's important for the community, for the government, but also for the Banjima people.

"There's a Banjima community living just some 40 minutes away in Karijini National Park. It's right on the edges of the park."

Calls to return Karijini to Banjima

When the Banjima won native title recognition in 2014, they also gained the contaminated site. However, the stunning nearby Karijini National Park was excised from their claim.

Mr Walsh says it's time the Banjima were also given traditional custodianship of Karijini.

"Karijini is part of the Banjima traditional land and I think it would be apt, it would be right and proper for Banjima to be given traditional land status for the park," Mr Walsh said.

"I think 2021 is time to physically recognise this and recognise the connection to country, a very strong connection to a country that is physically there." 

A WA Government spokesman told NITV the government "welcomes the opportunity to have discussions with the Banjima people regarding Karijini and its future management".

It may never be safe

The WA Government says when Wittenoom closed there were three million tonnes of asbestos tailings left behind in the gorge and surrounding area.

"Exposure to a single fibre of these tailings could prove fatal," a government spokesman says.

"Therefore, as disappointing as it is, it is virtually impossible to clean the area to a level where it could be considered safe for human habitation. 

"There is no matter that this area is one of the saddest chapters in WA history, 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."

Back in the 1980s, the state government assessed the available options to clean up the tailings dumps, either stowing them back down mine shafts, or flooding them by creating a dam at an appropriate site.

At the time it was thought it would cost more than $20 million.

It will be much higher today.

"Yeah it's going to cost millions, we know that. But that's not our problem."

The government says it could spend billions of dollars and still have the area unsafe for human habitation.

Maitland Parker says the government should at least try.

The Pilbara generates more than $100 billion in iron ore exports each year.

The Banjima, and other powerful native title groups in the Pilbara still wary after Rio Tinto's destruction of the ancient rock shelters at Juukan Gorge, are watching and waiting.

"All these people, the old miners...that made the mess, they've got to bring them around the table and get them to put their hands in their pocket and help to clean it up," Maitland Parker says.

"Yeah it's going to cost millions, we know that. But that's not our problem."

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