Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

Why don’t we mine asbestos again?

with 6 comments

Wittenoom, WA

The old asbestos mining town of Wittenoom, WA (

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…

Asbestos mine at Wittenoom

Asbestos mine at Wittenoom, WA (

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’:

6 Responses

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  1. […] will it all end? David Roberts answered that one (see the video I embedded here yesterday): 6 Celsius temperature rise by the end of the Century and a perpetual financial cost […]

  2. Ahhh! Asbestos. In Canada, the use of asbestos is severely restricted because we know that it is a carcinogen. YET, we have no qualms selling it to developing nations where WE KNOW workers use no protective gear. Isn’t hypocrisy grand?!?

    By the way, Martin, I wanted to ask you a question: Can you point me in the right direction for info regarding the lag between carbon emissions and actual warming? It is brought up in David Roberts’ presentation and I would like to read more about it.



    23 June 2012 at 22:49

    • Thanks for the supporting information, JP. Hypocrisy is great and, it would seem, very popular.

      On the subject of the multi-decadal delay in warming, this is due to the atmosphere being a massive chaotic system through which the CO2 emissions must travel before they reach the right altitude to stop moving around and behave like a blanket (this is why emissions from aircraft are such bad news). As for research papers or good written summaries, apart from searching the Greenhouse Effect database on the American Institute of Physics (AIP) website, you may have to do so in Google, which is how I found this.

      Good book: Atmospheric Justice: A Political Theory of Climate Change (2008) by Steve Vanderheiden

      Martin Lack

      25 June 2012 at 10:07

      • Thank you for the information and the links. I’ll take a look later this evening.


        25 June 2012 at 12:06

        • Sorry for original delayed response: I have disabled most WordPress notification emails – relying instead on on-screen flags and Comments I’ve Made page – Unfortunately neither alerts me to first-time comments (from established contributors) on my own blog posts… Time for a re-think…

          Martin Lack

          25 June 2012 at 12:11

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