Wittenoom, Australia

Blue Sky Mine by Midnight Oil

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The sweat of my brow keeps on feeding the engine,
Hope the crumbs in my pocket can keep me for another night.
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The 1980s were a decade of social awareness and even the rock stars seemed to care about the injustices across the globe. Following in Bono's footsteps, Peter Garrett, who hailed from the complete opposite side of the world, wrote and performed songs that he hoped would enlighten the fans of Midnight Oil to the travesties present in the world. The themes present in their 1990 album, Blue Sky Mining, did just that and began Garrett's political aspirations which would follow his musical career to the present day.

Doc Holiday's Cafe, now deserted, at entrance to Wittenoom<br>Photo: <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wittenoom_-_Doc_Holidays.JPG">Five Years</a>, <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0">CC BY-SA 3.0</a>, via Wikimedia CommonsDoc Holiday's Cafe, now deserted, at entrance to Wittenoom
Photo: Five Years, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The album's title track, "Blue Sky Mine," tells the story of Wittenoom, in Western Australia. Now a ghost town, the area had found previous success as a major supplier of asbestos, even after companies had learned of the health risks associated with using the product.

If I work all day in the Blue Sky Mine, there'll be food on the table tonight.

In the 1960s, the mine boomed and the town was incorporated by the CSR Limited Corporation – Colonial Sugar Refining Company – and its subsidiary Australian Blue Asbestos. "If the sugar refining company won't save me, who's gonna save me?" However, soon tragedy struck.

Between the end of World War II and the late 1960s, thousands upon thousands of workers, government officials, and their families (as well as tourists) were exposed to lethal levels of asbestos and developed fatal diseases, such as lung cancer and mesothelioma. CSR ignored the health department warnings and continued operating the mine until the lawsuits and court cases became more financially damaging than the mine was profitable.

And the company takes what the company wants.

The judge ruled against the company, claiming they acted with "continuing, conscious and contumelious" disregard for its workers' safety. The punitive rewards for the victims would be of little consolation.

By 2020, about 35 percent of all people who passed through the town during the mines' operation will be diagnosed with a fatal disease – approximately 2,000 cases. However, as of 1990, only about 300 workers had been compensated, a mere 11 percent of everyone affected. Wittenoom had become the single greatest industrial disaster ever to befall the land down under.

Nothing's as precious, as a hole in the ground.

Enter Midnight Oil.

Known informally as The Oils to their closest Aussie fans, Midnight Oil formed in the '70s, but drew worldwide fame in the following decade. Their first hit appeared on 1985's Diesel and Dust. "Beds Are Burning," a song about giving Australian lands back to the aboriginal Pintupi, one of the last groups to come in from the desert, brought the band a modicum of recognition. But it was the follow-up, Blue Sky Mining, as well as the album's title track, which catapulted them into the spotlight.

Government warning sign at Wittenoom<br>Photo: <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Govt_Warning_-_Wittenoom_WA.JPG">Five Years</a>, <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0">CC BY-SA 3.0</a>, via Wikimedia CommonsGovernment warning sign at Wittenoom
Photo: Five Years, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
While "Blue Sky Mine" only reached #47 on the Hot 100, the song climbed to #7 in Canada and #1 in Australia. The marginal success in North American didn't stop Midnight Oil from touring and recording more albums. The band's success in Australia, however, helped build lead singer Garrett a strong following, which helped fuel his rise in politics. From 2004 to 2013, he served in the Australian House of Representatives as a member of the Australian Labor Party and was appointed Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts. Prior to that, he served as President of the Australian Conservation Foundation for over a decade.

Some say he stood on the shoulders of his band's success to achieve success later in life. Music may have opened the doors, but men like Garrett – who're born with the passion to save the world – kick open any doors they want. Thanks to Midnight Oil, Garrett was able to raise money for charities, spearhead conservation initiatives, and expand the educational system in Western Australia. Not everything he did was good, but when it comes to politics, what is?

As far as Wittenoom is concerned, the government shut down the power grid to the area in 2006, in spite of a small number of residents who remained. Wittenoom's status as a town was officially removed (as were names from maps), road signs were taken down, and all roads leading to contaminated areas were closed. In April of 2013, a local committee met for one final decision-making meeting and it was decided that access to the town would be limited, houses demolished, and the town's remaining residents were to be relocated elsewhere for their safety.

Midnight Oil and Peter Garrett weren't able to save anyone directly affected by the tragedy of the asbestos mines, but if nothing else, they raised global awareness of the problems and helped stem the tide against future episodes of corporate negligence.

Justin Novelli
August 8, 2016
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Comments: 2

  • Lui from PerthThanks Midnight Oil - Your song ensures the lives suffered and lost (including my Dad - never to see his grandchildren!) are never forgotten. A disgraceful period in this country's history...blatant disregard for employee wellbeing in exchange for the mighty dollar!!
  • Trevor from North BoovalI have seen a fair bit on this place on youTube videos. One day i will go there and have a very good look around.It makes me sad that so many had to die in that mine and yet there will be more yet to come and die as well.You have done the right thing ( Midnight Oil,Thanks. R.I.P to all those people May God be with them.
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