Wittenoom Gorge Mine, Wittenoom Gorge, Wittenoom, Ashburton Shire, Western Australia, Australia
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This infamous mine has caused the deaths of hundreds of people. The Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia Inc describes it as the greatest industrial disaster in Australia. At Wittenoom thousands of people were exposed to levels of blue asbestos a thousand times higher than regulated at the time.
The Western Australian Mines Department was aware of asbestos at Wittenoom Gorge since 1917. It wasn't until the 1930's that mining for the mineral started in the area. Mr Lang Hancock began mining crocidolite (blue asbestos) in nearby Yampire Gorge in 1937. He was to later develop the Pilbara's iron ore mines, and become one of Western Australia's major mining magnates. By 1940, 364 tonnes of asbestos had been taken from the hillside, packed into sacks in a shed, then taken by horse 240 kilometres north to Port Samson. This mine closed shortly after, and the same year Mr Hancock opened the Wittenoom Mine.
The Wittenoom Mine produced 161 000 tonnes of asbestos during its operating life to 1966. In 1943, CSR Ltd purchased the mine. Working conditions at the mine were nothing short of appalling. Men crawled around in the dark in several stopes gouging out crocidolite, with no ventilation. In the mill, the ore was crushed by a dry process, causing so much dust (asbestos fibres) that floodlights were used in the middle of the day.
Health concerns were raised by government health officials as early as 1944. These were to continue on a regular basis with little government action. CSR was informed on a number of occasions, but showed a disregard to these safety concerns. In 1948 a government health officer, Dr Eric Saint, wrote to the mine managers stating the mine would produce the greatest number of asbestosis cases the world will see.
The inhalation of asbestos fibres even in small amounts can cause asbestosis, lung cancer, pleural plaques, and mesothelioma. It is estimated by 2020, there will be 700 deaths as a result of the mine. Not only are mine workers at risk, but the tailings were used as landfill at the town of Wittenoom. It is estimated 20 000 people have been exposed both at the mine, mill and town to the fibres.
The mine closed in 1966, but not due to safety concerns, but rather because it was losing money. By the time of closure it was $2.5 million (Aust) in debt.
CSR admitted they had done no geological study of the site. There has been little point since, as asbestos is now banned in Australia, and mine will never re-open. Some crocidolite specimens are found in collections from the mine. These should be kept in sealed containers, and handling should be avoided.
A question mark has been placed against tiger iron and tiger eye specimens labelled Wittenoom. Local mineral dealers mine most of thesis material from Marra Mamba, north west of Tom Price, and the Ord Range near Port Hedland, but it is also found in a number of other spots in the Pilbara, including at Wittenoom (Geert Buters, pers. comm.).
The site has been listed in the past as Wittenoon which is incorrect spelling.
7 entries listed. 5 valid minerals.
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Simpson, Minerals of Western Australia Vol 3 p 491.