Outback Outcasts

Residents of an old mining town defy state's efforts to move them out. They'll only leave in 'a police wagon.'

Deep in Western Australia's rugged outback, about 30 fiercely independent individuals are waging what many say is an unwinnable battle to keep their town alive.

Struggling to retain electricity, running water, and telephones, and angered by the demolition of most of their public buildings, the residents of Wittenoom - once a lucrative asbestos-mining center - insist they have the right to choose where they live.

Meg Timewell, an outspoken resident who ran the Wittenoom hotel before it was bulldozed, is leading the fight against the state government, which wants to close the town.

"There's no way they're putting me out of my home," she says passionately at the "campaign headquarters," a rundown building purchased from the government for A$30,000 ($23,000). "They'll have to cart me out in the back of a police wagon. We're all outback people.... We don't want to live in urban areas."

This eerily still place of vacant, flat plots of land and a few lonely looking buildings scarcely seems as if it could have been the bustling, multicultural center of the state's northwest that it once was.

The surrounding mountain ranges loom in the distance like ancient giants, silently watching the remaining street signs as well as the ubiquitous red clay soil and tufts of spinifex grass.

Lorraine Thomas, a friendly businesswoman who runs a dusty tourist information center and gem museum, is also at the forefront of the campaign. "I don't take it too kindly for people to say, 'You must move' when we've put all our effort into [our livelihoods]," she says, pointing toward her glass cases of colorful Australian gems.

But for many in remote Western Australia state, the story of Wittenoom is a bitter reminder of a tragedy in a mining town.

The town once had a population of 1,500. Residents included European migrants who fled the post-World War II poverty of their countries and came here hoping to save some money and fulfill their dreams of a good life.

The mine was closed in 1966 because of the pressure of foreign competition, owners said, but at that time some mine employees were diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases. The deaths of 200 residents were later attributed to exposure to the nearby mine.

CITING public-health concerns, the state government says it is safer to completely demolish Wittenoom and bury the evidence of its existence than have people still live there.

But the remaining residents insist their town is safe. They cite a 1992 health report prepared for the government, which concluded that there was no significant health risk for residents or visitors. The state government later rejected those findings and commissioned another study in 1994 that reported more significant health risks.

The residents say the government has ulterior motives in wanting to drive them away. Wittenoom is in an area known not only for its awesome natural beauty, but also for its great mineral wealth, particularly iron ore.

Squinting through her cracked glasses, banging away at an old typewriter with two fingers, Mrs. Timewell writes a letter to the town's lawyer, who has helped the community retain essential services - temporarily, at least. She says the government wanted to disconnect the town's supply of electricity and water last year and has tried to prevent state employees from entering Wittenoom since the early 1990s.

But following legal action and an out-of-court settlement, the state's electricity and water companies agreed to negotiate with the town and find a way to continue their services.

On learning that their running water would continue at the end of last year, the jubilant residents cranked up their rusty fire engine, turned on the siren, and careened through the town's barren streets on New Year's Eve, cheering and drinking bottles of water.

Timewell says the legal campaign was financed partly by donations from former Wittenoom residents. They sent about A$11,000 - mainly $10 and $20 notes from pensioners.

Although temporarily relieved, the townspeople worry that the government will enact a law that will finally lay Wittenoom to rest. Already, politicians are portraying the residents as "old and derelict."

Peter Jackson, a spokesman for Hendy Cowan, the state's deputy premier, says people are discouraged from visiting or living in Wittenoom because of "health hazards." Otherwise, he says, the government would face the possibility of lawsuits from people with asbestos-related disease who had spent time in Wittenoom.

Mrs. Thomas says tourist bureaus have been told to not mention Wittenoom to visitors who want to see the nearby Karijini National Park.

But many tourists, like Austrian painter Walter Prummer, refuse to be dissuaded. He has visited the town seven times, calling it his favorite place in the world. Amid the 104 degrees F. temperature recently, he refreshes himself in a swimming hole with his Swiss friend, Stefania Martinaglia.

Of course, none of the residents will argue that life isn't tough. Most are either retired, unemployed, or living off savings or part-time jobs.

Since the demolition of most of the buildings about two years ago, they no longer have a town hall, general store, library, or outdoor cinema. The nearest shopping center is a round-trip of 160 miles on a dirt road - if it's not flooded by rain. Otherwise, residents must drive 300 miles round-trip to the next-closest stores.

One of the old timers, Gordon Withers, admits his emotional and physical state might improve if he accepted the government's offer to buy his house. "Most people have been harassed and forced to sell, but I'm not budging," the wiry former mining electrician says. He recalls his sense of loss at the destruction of the local fire station, which he and a friend had refurbished. "When that went down, I had to walk away," he says.

His thoughts are echoed by Paul Fitzgerald, a gentle, kindly former priest who was based in Wittenoom in the 1960s and has returned to join the fight. "I wouldn't be living here now if it wasn't for this fighting against the government. I don't like what they've done to the people here."

During Wittenoom's heyday, most of the mine employees considered the town to be "a prison without bars." They could not wait to escape the primitive living conditions.

But Vera Yugolano, a charming Italian-born woman, only has fond memories of the 33 years she has spent here. "People here had a lot of fun," she says, gazing at fading photographs that show her as a beautiful young woman. "There was always something to do."

With her partner, Umberto Favero, a former miner, she has been a caretaker of the mining-company offices, located a way away from the main town. They plan to move to the city of Perth soon. She is careful to bow her head when she rides in a car driving through the town; she has not seen the area since the demolition.

"I don't want it to get me down," she explains. "All the years here have been happy years. If I could have my way, I'd go back and start it all over again."

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