Australian Couple One of Few Remaining in Asbestos-Contaminated Town

While Libby, Mont. tries to resuscitate its image as a livable town despite its asbestos problem, the small outback town of Wittendoom, Australia cut its losses and paid residents to leave — but not all of them could be bought. In a story a bit out of left field, an Australian news outlet profiles a couple who have decided to continue life in a former asbestos mining town that has been all but quarantined by the Australian government.

Mario Hartmann and Gail Malcom are one of only eight remaining residents in the barren Western Australian town of Wittenoom. Once a booming mining town in the 1950s and 1960s, Wittenoom attracted new residents to fill high-paying mining jobs. But the closure of the mine in 1966 amid concerns of asbestos’ toxicity commenced the town’s slow demise into its current state.

The town is no longer recognized by the government, after a massive cleanup attempt failed to lower asbestos levels in the area. Maps and road signs now warn travelers to keep windows closed and to stay in one’s vehicle when passing through, and the government has eliminated all basic services in the area – essentially rendering Wittenoom a ghost town.

But these dire warnings don’t seem to bother Hartmann and Malcom, the latter being the first person to move to the town in decades and subsequently meeting her future husband when everyone else seemed to be moving out. For them, it seems leaving the town they met was unthinkable – as they turned turn a government offer of $43,000 to move out.

Of course, there is a reason Hartmann and Malcom are one of only eight remaining residents. They’re willing to take a chance that is not statistically good – that one can breathe in asbestos fibers on a daily basis for years and experience little to no side effects. 1,000 of 20,000 former residents have already succumbed to asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma. Not to mention the fact that, when living in a ghost town, eating requires more than a trip to the grocery store (Hartmann shoots Kangaroos to feed the family dog).

But the following quote from Hartmann best sums up his (perhaps misguided?) thought process: “Cancer is a throw of the dice. Some people get it and some people don’t.”