Peter Heyward, one of Wittenoom's last remaining residents, at the long abandoned Doc Holiday's Cafe. Pictures: Nic Ellis

Beside the shell of the building that was once Wittenoom's only restaurant and the guts of a long abandoned petrol bowser, a white face mask is lying in the red dust.

The mask does not surprise local Pete Heyward, who assumes it was discarded by a cautious tourist or the police, who habitually don such protection when venturing into the eerily beautiful Pilbara ghost town.

But as the State Government prepares a fresh bid to shut the former asbestos mining town for good, the mask's presence is a stark reminder that the town's history is as deadly as its vista is scenic.

Six years after Wittenoom was stripped of its official town status, the Government has quietly reconvened the Wittenoom steering committee.

The committee met in April for the first time in five years with the remit to finalise closure of the town, limit access to the area and raise awareness of the risks. Details of how that will be achieved are to be determined but it will likely necessitate removing the town's remaining residents, converting freehold land to crown land, demolishing houses and closing or rerouting roads.

Lorraine Thomas in the frontyard of her Wittenoom home.

A feasibility study is under way to look at options to manage the asbestos contamination.

Successive WA governments have been trying to shut Wittenoom for decades, most recently cutting electricity and mail services and removing its name from road signs, bar those warning of the presence of deadly blue asbestos in the area.

Wittenoom Gorge has not been mined since the late 1960s but tailings were used in the town's carparks, playgrounds, sporting fields and roads, where flecks of blue are still clearly visible. Asbestos from the mine has been blamed for fatalities and the Department of Environment and Conservation has classified the town and gorge as contaminated and "not suitable for any form of human occupation".

Government efforts have produced results and when The West Australian visited Wittenoom last week it found just three permanent residents in the town that once housed 2000 people.

Remarkably, the diehard locals say loneliness is not a problem, despite the fact they keep mostly to themselves, and they are simultaneously entranced by the landscape and sceptical the town is as dangerous as has been claimed.

One of the three, Mr Heyward, has anticipated some of the questions he will be asked, handing over two envelopes labelled "Why I live here" and "What I do here".

Mario Hartman with the town's old 1950s fire truck.

Both are stuffed with pictures of the nearby wilderness taken on his hikes and camping trips, from the natural beauty of the gorge to the disconcerting sight of a python devouring a bird.

Mr Heyward has stayed in Wittenoom for 21 years, he says, for its "silent stillness" and access to nature. He also sees a silver lining in the situation - demolition of most of the houses has given him an unimpeded view of the Hamersley Range.

"Sometimes I want to call up the Government and say thanks," he says with a soft laugh and a grin that cracks his tanned face in two.

"We've got enough creatures out here to keep me company and there's no time to get lonely. I find new stuff here every day."

A street away Mario Hartman has seen Wittenoom transform from a small but bustling town of about 60 people when he moved there 23 years ago to its current state, where fields of buffel grass, spinifex and clusters of purple flowering mulla mulla plants have seized control of the land that once housed neighbours, the school and pub.

"Over the years it was pretty hard," Mr Hartman says in a voice still thickly accented with his Austrian roots and loud enough to rise above the shriek of butcher birds in his garden.

"The Government has done basically everything it can do. The only thing it can do now is compulsory acquisition."

Department of Lands acting director-general Mike Bradford declined to comment on whether compulsory acquisition would be considered, saying a final decision on Wittenoom had not been made. The Government has previously offered to buy out residents.

Lorraine Thomas amongst Sturt Desert Peas with her dogs Pink and Princess.

Mr Hartman turned down the last offer, saying it was not enough to buy elsewhere in the Pilbara.

Mr Hartman says it is necessary to respect the risk posed by asbestos. "It does kill people," he says.

At the same time he points to his dog Rex, a 17-year-old kelpie with ageing joints. "He's spent his whole life in Wittenoom and there's nothing wrong with him," he says.

Wittenoom's longest-standing resident Lorraine Thomas similarly believes Wittenoom is less dangerous than many other places.

"I came out here because the area is so beautiful," she said.

Ms Thomas, an Ashburton Shire councillor, is also sceptical of the motives behind those who want the residents out, suspecting it may have something to do with mining interests.

Despite the warnings, Wittenoom still attracts tourists - especially in the school holidays when families camp in Wittenoom Gorge.

Residents say they have not been contacted about the Government's latest plans. If they offer him enough money to move, Mr Heyward says, it may be hard to resist but until then he remains sanguine. "They may eventually eradicate us out of here," he says. "But I'll enjoy it while I can."

The West Australian

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