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The Wittenoom Tragedy

The CSR mining and milling of blue asbestos at Wittenoom, Western Australia, is the greatest industrial disaster in Australia and is comparable to similar catastrophes such as Bhopal, Seveso and Minamato.
At Wittenoom thousands of workers and their families, visitors, tourists, consultants and Government officials were exposed to lethal levels of blue asbestos a thousand times higher than occupationally regulated at the time.

Mr Lang Hancock commenced mining blue asbestos at Wittenoom in 1938. However due to the war, there was a shortage of asbestos fibre imports which was used in the asbestos manufacturing industry. Thus in 1943 CSR purchased the Wittenoom mining operations from Mr Hancock and his partners and CSR became one of the major miners and manufacturers of asbestos products in Australia.

CSR formed the subsidiary company called Australian Blue Asbestos (ABA) to operate the mine on their behalf. CSR also retained Mr Hancock for the next 5 years as the mine superintendent. When asked to describe the Wittenoom mine, a CSR Executive recalled that, "the whole operation was so filthy that we got rid of him [Mr Hancock] and managed the mine ourselves."

The mine consisted of a number of stopes and a milling operation. Working conditions inside the mine were appalling. The miners had to crawl around in the hot dark stopes on their knees, bent almost double, working in dreadful conditions gouging out the blue asbestos which was in very thin bands in the hard rock. For example, it was 20 years before CSR Management even bothered to bore an airhole from the surface to the mine to supply the miners with fresh air.

Working conditions in the mill were even more appalling than the mine. The ore from the mine was then taken to the mill for processing via conveyor belt. Milling was a dry process where the ore was ground down and the fibre then extracted. Conditions were so bad that the men needed flood lights to see through the dust at midday. The men worked in these clouds of asbestos dust for hours on end, when only one minute at such concentrations to blue asbestos fibres would have been enough to cause lung cancer or mesothelioma.

There is absolutely no question that CSR knew that asbestosis and cancer were extremely likely results of working in conditions such as those they permitted in Wittenoom. (CSR's knowledge was established in the Victorian and Western Australian courts through the judgements of asbestos-caused injury litigation).
During the mining operations, more than 20,000 men, women and children lived at Wittenoom. Some of the workers sent there were part of the Commonwealth Government policy to place new migrants for a period of two years in any work situation.

Dr Jim McNulty AO visited Wittenoom milling and mining operations between 1957 and 1962 in his capacity as a chest physician, mines medical officer.

In 1962 Dr McNulty diagnosed the first mesothelioma case in Australia in a worker employed at CSR's blue asbestos mine at Wittenoom. Upon diagnosing this first Australian mesothelioma, Dr McNulty personally explained its significance to CSR's subsidiary management (Australian Blue Asbestos Pty Ltd) stating "that the relatively short period of exposure to blue asbestos confirms the impression that these tumours may arise after transitory exposure to crocidolite." He also sent them a copy of his paper describing the case which was published in the Medical Journal of Australia.

Dr McNulty is adamant that CSR was always aware that if it continued to run the mine without adequate dust suppression, they could be endangering the Wittenoom mine and mill workers to a very grave degree.

One of the strongest warnings was given in writing to CSR's consulting doctor, Maynard Rennie, by West Australian specialist Dr Bruce Hunt on September 25 1961. He wrote, "It would obviously be much more satisfactory if the company (CSR) itself took the necessary action - which I suggest should start with an inspection by yourself and by a well qualified ventilation engineer. After examining the evidence which has been produced for you I find it very difficult to believe that a reputable public company (CSR) could remain in its apparently self satisfied state and continue to allow the asbestos mining industry to go on killing men unfortunate enough to be employed in it. If however the present situation is to remain unaltered I feel it my bounden duty to bring the matter to the personal attention of the Premier."

In 1962 the matters of poor hygiene and excessive dust at the CSR Wittenoom mine and mill were brought to the attention of Premier and Cabinet of the day. Sadly, no action was taken because apparently CSR threatened to close the mine if additional restrictions were to be placed upon their mining and milling of blue asbestos at Wittenoom.

It would appear that despite the many warnings from doctors and mining inspectors, CSR continued to run the mine and milling operations with little regard for dust suppression, which is now considered to be the reason for many premature deaths of former Wittenoom workers many years later.

During the 1970s Dr Janet Elder, Senior Chest Physician at the University of Department of Medicine at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, was horrified by the speed with which the new cases of mesothelioma and other asbestos-caused diseases were developing amongst the former Wittenoom workers. "The dreadful tragedy," she recalls, "was that so many of its victims were very young and very fit when they went there [Wittenoom]."

CSR blue asbestos mining and milling at Wittenoom has had a significant impact on all Australians. Western Australia in particular has the highest rate of malignant mesothelioma than any State in Australia or elsewhere in the world per capita of population.

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