Why don’t we mine asbestos again?
Yesterday, I mentioned that I worked as a mine geologist in Australia in the late 1980s. One of the weirdest places I visited, while living and working in the Hammersley Range of Pilbara Region in the NW of Western Australia, was the former asbestos mining town of Wittenoom.
I made the trip up from Newman to Wittenoom before the tarmac Highway through to the coast was completed in the late 1980s.
The town itself was bulldozed in 2007 but, as an historical site, even though the Highway has made it much easier to get to, visiting is probably not a good idea…
In the late 1980s there was still a Youth Hostel in the town and, even though the risks are probably minimal, I remain slightly nervous about the fact that I had a good look around – walking over the spoil heaps (on which plants do not grow) that fill much of the steep-sided valley between the mines and the town. The Western Australian government leaves you in no doubt about who will be responsible if any tourists eventually become ill as a consequence of a visit…
Mining at Wittenoom stopped in 1966, according to the Australian Asbestos Network website, but it was not until 2006 that the government of WA declared the site to be contaminated; and officially closed the town. So what is all the fuss about? Blue asbestos (crocidolite) is probably one of the most dangerous naturally occurring substances that is not radioactive. One microscopic fibre inhaled may be sufficient for you to develop chronic breathing difficulties (mesothelioma) – only one problem it takes decades to develop… So guess what? Decades after miners and their families started developing breathing difficulties and dying, the mining companies (and later the government) denied all responsibility for what was happening. Does this sound at all familiar? It should do, because we humans have a very sad record of discovering things to be hazardous; allowing a lot people to die before those with a lot of money to lose finally admit their responsibility; when governments finally intervene to restrict access to the substance and/or make its use illegal. I am thinking of things like heroin, uranium, x-rays, chlorofluorocarbons, and tobacco.
On the Learning from Dogs blog, yesterday, Paul Handover published an 18-minute video of a presentation by David Roberts (a blogger on the Grist website). It is the most straight-forward explanation of why people need to wake up to the reality of what humans are doing to the planet; and I cannot recommend it highly-enough.
As David points out in his presentation, the International Energy Agency claims that greenhouse gas emissions must peak within 5 to 10 years or:
— stabilising the Earth’s temperature will become impossible;
— 6 Celsius rise by the end of the century will be guaranteed; and
— mitigation and/or adaptation costs increase by 500 billion USD every year.
Even if Carbon Capture and Storage does prove achievable (I remain sceptical), we now seem to be very short of both time and money. However, I am not just a doomsayer: I believe that this problem is solvable but only if we think outside the box, #StopFossilFuelSusidies; and start paying people to install renewable electricity and water-heating systems in their own homes (etc). My only question is this:
How long will it be until fossil fuels are classified as Hazardous?
While you’re waiting to build-up a head of steam of rage over this issue, please listen to this very apt song by 80’s Australian band V.Spy V.Spy, entitled ‘Injustice':