The last days of an inner city where every breath can be toxic

WITTENOOM, Australia — Sitting on a roof in a ghost town in the middle of the Australian outback, Mario Hartmann waited for the bulldozers to arrive.

I went up every day because it was the only place where there was an internet signal. With the nearest town an hour and a half away, she knew she had to be careful. “Come on, you can only have 15 beers,” she said. “More than 15 beers, here you do not go up.”

But far worse risks lie in wait for this city. In the yard below, Mr. Hartmann’s Australian Shepherd scampered after a ball, kicking up clouds of dust laced with an unseen threat: blue asbestos. Just one breath can send the fibers into someone’s lungs, triggering an aggressive and incurable cancer. That’s why the government is about to wipe this town, Wittenoom, off the face of the earth.

Mr. Hartmann, 59, paid no attention to any of this. He waved at the panoramic view of sun-bleached fields and red mountain ranges beyond the city, his vacation home now and forever.

“How beautiful is this, huh?” he said.

Once a symbol of economic prosperity, Wittenoom now stands as one of Australia’s greatest industrial tragedies, rendered uninhabitable by the actions of irresponsible mining interests and neglected by a government that has done nothing to clean it up.

The city was built a long time ago due to growing demand for asbestos products such as siding and insulation, with the promise of economic development dwarfing emerging health problems. Of the 20,000 people who have lived in the town or worked in the nearby mine, 2,000 have died from asbestos-related diseases.

Wittenoom became a carcinogenic ticking time bomb as mining waste products, known as tailings, poured into the city, paved roads and spread in playgrounds and gardens to suppress dust. Near the mine, the waste (more than three million tons) was piled up like mountains and allowed to flow down ravines.

Sixty years after mining ceased, the Western Australian state government says the health risk remains unacceptably high.

For more than a decade, it has tried to shut down Wittenoom to prevent thrill-seeking tourists from visiting. He removed the city from official maps and cut off the water and electricity. He tried to buy off the residents. When that failed, he passed a bill this year to acquire the remaining properties by force.

In the process, he turned the handful of residents who refused to leave into symbols of stubborn self-determination, fighting for the right to roll the dice on their own lives.

But by early September, the two remaining people were almost ready to give up the fight. One was Mr. Hartmann, who accepted the purchase a few years ago but still returned for several months each year.

An immigrant who combines a thick Austrian accent with an Australian proclivity for swearing, he left when the town, emptied and shattered, lost all resemblance to where he had made his home 30 years ago.

He is not blind to the danger of his annual return trips in his caravan. But he readily accepts it, seeing it as out of his control. “Some people get it, some people don’t,” he said of asbestos-related cancer. “Depends on your makeup.”

Living in a place like Wittenoom requires belief in an immovable future. Mr. Hartmann views his fate with an inevitability that absolves him of all doubt about his own choices, which is why he can say with certainty that if living in Wittenoom eventually leads to his death, “I wouldn’t regret being here.” here”.

Maitland Parker, who grew up on the outskirts of Wittenoom during its heyday, remembers the clouds of dust rising from a bustling mine. Aboriginal children like him used to hitchhike on trucks carrying asbestos fibers, he said. His brother remembers chewing the tailings like gum.

But it would take decades for people to realize what they had been breathing. “We never really had a clue,” Parker said.

When he visited Wittenoom one afternoon in August, he put on a mask.

Mr. Hartmann made fun of him about it. “What about the mask, huh?” he said. Mr. Parker has already been diagnosed with mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos exposure.

This is part of the randomness of Wittenoom’s devastation. While many who worked directly with asbestos did not develop cancer, Mr. Parker did despite the fact that he never lived in the city or worked in the mine.

Mesothelioma can be treated but not cured, and life expectancy after diagnosis is usually one to two years. But Parker, 69, is still going strong after receiving his diagnosis in 2016.

“That I’m still alive. I should be dead,” he said. With the time he has left, he has made it his mission to clean up the contamination.

After the closure of the mine, no move was made to rehabilitate the land. The Banjima people, who have lived around Wittenoom for thousands of years, have kept his legacy. They still go to the mountain ranges and gorges near the town. They have no choice, they say; it is their cultural and spiritual obligation.

But every time they do, they make the impossible choice between their way of life and their health. Western Australia has one of the highest rates of mesothelioma in the world, and the rate among the state’s Aboriginal population is higher still.

Parker said the responsibility rested with the Western Australian government. “At this point, they don’t care about the suffering,” she added.

Mr. Parker and others associated with Wittenoom believe that the town’s closure will herald a restart of mining in the area. They fear that warnings about the industrial arrogance that the town symbolizes are being stoned by the same industry that destroyed it once before.

Gina Rinehart, Australia’s richest woman, whose father mined asbestos in Wittenoom, plans to mine for iron ore just outside the contamination zone and has also explored mining within it.

The pain Mr. Parker feels with each breath is a reminder that his time is running out. But “while I’m still kicking and I can still breathe and advocate for my country to be cleaned up,” he said, “well then, that’s what I’ll do.”

A well-maintained home stands out among the wasteland of rusting oil drums, downed signposts and boarded-up windows that is Wittenoom.

Beside the front door, a polite warning, scrawled on a tablet in neat writing, greeted visitors: “Please stay away. People still live here. Thank you.”

A person, actually. Inside, Lorraine Thomas, the last resident of Wittenoom, was packing 40-year-old belongings into cardboard boxes and containers: antique furniture, piles of papers and documents, clothes whose owners were long gone.

“These are things that I have collected,” said Thomas, 80.

It was a slow process. He had missed a deadline to leave in June and another on August 31. Earlier this month, she was waiting to see if authorities would forcibly remove her.

As she counted down the days, her mind returned to the memories she had made in the village, where she had moved with her three young daughters after the death of her first husband. She was in Wittenoom where she met her second husband, Lesley, and she built a life with him running a gem and tourism shop.

He recounted those memories over and over again, as if he could still see them replaying through his windows: gas stations, schools, and motels superimposed on vacant lots and knee-deep grass.

“I don’t know,” he reflected. “Life should be a little different.”

Even after her daughters left, her husband died, the city disappeared, and her house collapsed around her, she swore she would never leave, because she was unwilling to part with a place that had become a monument to a happier times and a fuller life. To stay, she had to be eminently self-sufficient; when she locked herself out of her house recently, she broke a window to get back in.

But as his health worsened, he admitted he couldn’t stay forever.

On September 8, the inevitable happened: Sheriff’s deputies arrived unannounced and evicted Ms. Thomas.

Mr. Hartmann also left by government order and took his mobile home to a nearby gorge to spend the rest of his vacation.

And Mr. Parker will continue to wait to see if Wittenoom’s lessons are ever learned.