Thursday, 24 July 2008

Reviewing Wittenoom - a case of Government once again stealing heritage.

There was once a little town called Wittenoom. At one time it was the largest town that far north in WA. I and a few hundred other people lived there in the late 60's and early 70's - and then began as shambolic a process of throwing those lives into disarray as has ever happened in totalitarian countries, let alone a supposed democracy.

As a kid growing up there, I should by now have died of mesothelioma. I'm not. Nor has even one of my contemporaries that I am aware of had the least bit of asbestos-related health issues, in fact I'd say we're in better shape than the national average.

I'll refer to this document in the WA Parliamentary files for some ammo, but first of all some personal experience and observations:

My peers and I played in the town's supposed "deadly" atmosphere, and that means kid style panting and if there was any asbestos fibre in the air we with our young lungs should have died by now. But we haven't. My personal experience with the asbestos fibres was that if you wet the broken fibres, they would seemingly stick back together. Don't know how true that is, but remember kids observe and don't judge, and I was a pretty inquisitive kid.

Then suddenly there was a government intake of breath, a kind of collective gasp of horror - look, have you read that .PDF yet? I suggest you do that, it makes stark and frustrating reading. The government was and still is not so much concerned for the lives of we the ex residents, as they were apparently scared that they would be sued for dereliction of duty of care...

We were told that our house was being reclaimed by the government, one way or another, and they were offering us the princely sum of $1000 for the house and land. Yes, we'd bought the place for that price, but had since spent tens of thousands rebuilding and renovating and refurbishing. I was young and didn't understand it all. I grieved for a place that had been more home than anyplace I'd lived before, and I was and still am saddened everytime I think about it.

But before that happened, Wittenoom rallied. Out of their own pockets, the residents installed air monitoring and wore air monitors. The quantities of airborne fibre measured were only slightly worse than the recommended maxmium, and certainly below that could have been measured (at that time, the late 70's early 80's) beside any major road in Perth - because vehicle brake shoes were still made of asbestos back then, and between those brakes and Super Six asbestos fencing, asbestos roofing, and asbestos wall claddings shedding fibres in a far more densely populated area, had the committee that took my home from measured those levels I think they would have been far more concerned to close Perth than Wittenoom.

Pages 13 and 14 of the document pretty much say it all - Wittenoom was "wound down" not because it was any less safe than any other place, but because once the government measured any amount of risk, they preferred to cut that limb off rather than risk being sued. This is an important point I will return to later - the government admitting that once they become aware of a risk, no matter that the risk is no worse than in unmeasured areas, they consider themselves liable if they don't eliminate that risk.

Why is that important? Well, the government now advertises extensively admitting that cigarettes are deadly poison, and if you examine the records I am sure you will find that this was already known 20 - 50 years ago. So there is another form of risk that the government was made aware of but failed completely to act to eliminate. It's important to me because you know how I said I wasn't dying of mesothelioma or asbestosis or lung cancer? Well I AM dying of emphysema caused by cigarette smoking - which I had been doing for longer than the government had been trying to bury Wittenoom. Surely if they admit to concern over derelcition of duty of care, then they owe me for allowing tobacco manufacturers to advertise and sell tobacco products to a 12 year old kid?

And my last question is: Considering how much of my personal history the government has bulldozed along with my home, and considering that there is still a chance that one day Wittenoom will rise again - what will the government do to compensate those of us that they have displaced for what will have turned out to be no defensible reason? Is there anything they can do that actually will compensate us? They've pretty much stuck themselves on a cleft stick on this issue and I'm eager to see what bastardry they will get up to next. If there's one thing my contacts with the government has taught me it's that our government is not there for the good of the people...

I would love to see justice for all the people the government stole the history and heritage of. Pity that just like the Stolen Generations and the now famour Sorry, it will probably come too late for the people they affected the most.

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