Shire of Ashburton ratepayers bear financial burden of Wittenoom asbestos compensation claims
Wittenoom’s asbestos mining past is continuing to haunt Shire of Ashburton ratepayers who are facing escalating legal costs from compensation claims.
The local government’s insurance coverage ran out more than a decade ago meaning it has paid $6.3 million on cases related to the ghost town, which is located within its boundaries, since 2008.
In the past financial year alone the Shire has set aside $1.9 million to deal with the costs.
Ashburton president Kerry White said the nature of the claims had changed from involving long term residents to people who had just visited the area.
“Insurance has covered a lot but we’ve run out of that now, we’re frightened for what the future is going to hold,” she said.
“It’s very unfair a local government has to pay this out when the State put the town there and the State got the royalties and we’re dragged into this with no help from the State.
“Earlier claims made were from those who were family members of mine workers, including spouses and children … in more recent times, there has been a rise in claims received from tourists and people who visited the town for short-term work contracts who may have had building product exposure.”
The Wittenoom asbestos mine closed in 1966 and the town was de-gazetted in 2007.
More than 2000 former workers and residents from the town have died from asbestos-related diseases.
Asbestos cement products were used in the construction of many buildings in the Shire and tailings from the mine were also used around the region for different projects.
A Bill was introduced to WA Parliament last year to limit access to Wittenoom but Cr White said while the local government supported the new law it also wanted to see a new commission established.
“(It) would be responsible for the State ownership of the contaminated areas of Wittenoom and surrounds as a means to resolve the wider issues that still remain,” she said.
Member for North West Central Vince Catania said ratepayers should not be burdened with the increased costs of litigations for a crime that they did not commit.
“The State received financial benefit when it was operational … and so therefore should be using that windfall to cover legal fees and any settlements into the future,” he said.
“We’re seeing the escalation of legal fees at a rapid rate because people just have to say they’ve visited to be able to make a claim.”
A State Government spokeswoman said the resolution of Wittenoom asbestos matters depended on the facts and was assessed by each party.
“The parties commonly joined in legal proceedings include CSR Limited, Midalco Pty Ltd, the State of Western Australia, the Shire of Ashburton, Hancock Prospecting Pty Limited and Wright Prospecting Pty Ltd,” she said.
“The parties are separately represented and as is inherent in legal proceedings costs are a matter determined between that party and their representative.”
Lands Minister Ben Wyatt has previously said a commission, as suggested by the council, was “not required”.
Article originally appeared in the West Australian.