WITTENOOM, Australia (Reuters) - Of the 20,000 people who once lived in this outback mining town in western Australia, at least 1,000 are dead of asbestos-related diseases. Just about everyone else left long ago.
But if Mario Hartmann, an Austrian immigrant who moved to far western Australia to shoot kangaroos and herd cattle ever had any intention of leaving too, that changed 10 months ago when he met the love of his life, Gail Malcom, on what’s left of Wittenoom’s main street.
“We couldn’t imagine living in a place more peaceful and beautiful than this,” said Hartmann, 44, smiling at his partner and gesturing towards the foothills of the magnificent Hamersley Range.
“Cancer is a throw of the dice. Some people get it and some people don’t,” he said.
In the 18 years Hartmann has lived - some would say survived - in Wittenoom, current population 8, he’s watched most of his friends and neighbors leave, some sick and all heeding the government’s warning to get out or possibly die from one or more lung ailments linked to asbestos.
Some moved to Perth 1,500 kms (930 miles) south on the Indian Ocean, others to nearby settlements and aboriginal camps that pepper the stark land-locked region known as the Pilbara.
One of the last to leave was an American who for years ran Doc Holiday’s Cafe, Wittenoom’s only restaurant.
The asbestos mine on the outskirts of town closed in 1966 as the dangers to humans became clearer but it was too late for many in the town who worked in the mine or used the plentiful supplies of asbestos to pave roads and schoolyards.
Asbestos waste from the mine was even employed to help build the town’s airstrip.
From 1950 to the early 1960s, Wittenoom was Australia’s only source of asbestos and the town thrived, attracting thousands of mine workers and their families with the promise of high-paying jobs.
Years later, in a failed clean-up attempt, parking lots were scraped and resheeted, roads resealed and yards covered with clean fill. Still, the Western Australian government recommends avoiding Wittenoom. If you must go, it warns on road maps and Web sites, stay in your car and keep the windows closed.
Asbestos fibers enter the body through the lungs. Exposure to asbestos has been shown to cause lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma, a cancer that affects the protective lining that covers the body’s internal organs, including the lungs and chest.
Hartmann, a chain smoker, says he shows no symptoms of any of these. Malcom is the only person to actually move to Wittenoom in decades, at first taking up residence across the street from Hartmann in an old Catholic convent and providing lodging for the odd intrepid tourist drawn by the natural beauty of the ranges and brave enough to stay in the town for a night or two.
“I don’t think there is any risk as long as you stay clear of the mine tailings, especially when it’s windy,” Malcom said.
Most contamination is in the soil, not in the air. If the government removed the tailings that would solve a lot of problems.”
Both the Health Department of Western Australia and the local Ashburton shire disagree and say they consider airborne asbestos fibers in the area a clear health risk.
Two years ago, nearly 30 of the then 37 remaining residents left and the state government said it would no longer recognize Wittenoom as a town. Electricity was cut off, mail deliveries stopped and police patrols halted. There is no fire brigade or doctor in town.
“Since then, we’ve been totally on our own,” said Hartmann, who relies on a 50-year-old generator in his backyard for electricity. The town’s six other residents also must find their own power. Lorraine and Les Thomas next door rely on a homemade solar power system.
Shopping requires a 140 kilometers (87 miles) drive to the next town Tom Price on the other side of the range so Hartmann and Malcom prefer to grow vegetables and hunt for most of their meals. When one person in the town goes shopping, they do so for everybody else.
Hartmann says he still shoots kangaroos to feed the family dog.
He turned down a government offer of A$43,000 ($40,000) for his home on the condition he and Gail leave Wittenoom.
“I guess you could say I’m retired and Gail and I have a life here together. Why would we leave,” he said.
Adds Gail: “The cinema is gone, the school’s gone, even the nuns from the convent left. But I came to Wittenoom, population next to nothing, and I met my man.
“What are the odds of that? I love it here.”
Editing by Megan Goldin