An Aboriginal community in Western Australia is trying to raise money to fix its water supply, which contains unsafe levels of uranium.
Buttah Windee is a community of four houses about 3km from Meekatharra, a mining town that’s name means “place of little water” in the local Yamatji language.
It has 12 permanent residents and is supplied with bore water that is contaminated with uranium at more than twice the maximum safe level.
The WA government was notified of the uranium contamination in 2012 but refused to install a water treatment plant, saying the cost of doing so was “excessive given the small size of the community”.
Instead it put up signs warning residents not to drink or cook with the water and offered alternative public housing in Meekatharra itself.
Yamatji man Andrew Binsiar has been fighting to stay put. He has raised more than $10,000 through crowdfunding and an art auction and hopes to install a water filtration system to supply both the community and a new fish farm, which is part of a remote Indigenous employment program.
Binsiar discovered the uranium contamination nine years ago when all of the fish in his backyard koi pond died. He sent the water away to be tested and found that it had uranium levels of 0.04mg/L.
Health guidelines state that the maximum safe level is 0.017mg/L.
“I had it tested again this year, it’s still exactly the same,” Binsiar told Guardian Australia.
He installed a 9,000-litre tank on each house, which he fills with tap water from the town supply, to be used for drinking and cooking.
Uranium is a naturally occurring contaminant throughout parts of outback Australia.
A 2015 report by the state auditor general’s office found that the water in one in five remote Aboriginal communities in WA exceeded safe levels for nitrates or uranium.
The Department of Communities currently tests the water supply in 82 remote Aboriginal communities, and said it had seen a significant improvement in water quality since installing chlorine treatment units and reverse osmosis filtration systems in some communities.
It said it withdrew government support for Buttah Windee in 2013 after the community rejected an offer to establish a new public housing agreement in Meekatharra.
“The community elected to continue to reside at Buttah Windee and accept responsibility for the provision of housing and associated services to residents,” assistant director Greg Cash said. “The department ceased providing management services in 2013 and has had no formal relationship with the community since then.”
Binsiar said: “They came and sat on the veranda over here and said they were going to put a bulldozer through my house and put be back into [public housing provider] Homeswest.”
In 2014, then premier Colin Barnett said up to 150 remote Aboriginal communities faced “closure” because they were “not viable” after the federal government withdrew municipal services funding.
The current government opposed that policy but has adopted the remote community reform process started under Barnett which focuses investment on larger communities. It has also cited funding woes linked to the end of the remote housing agreement.
Binsiar said many remaining residents – Wadjarri people and his wife’s extended family – had lived there since it was established on Wadjarri land in 1993.
He said the community was a safer place to raise children, away from the drug and alcohol issues of Meekatharra.
Unless the community’s water supply can be fixed, the new aquaculture enterprise, which is part of the federal community development program, will have to close.
“If we get this thing to a stage and we can’t fix the water, all the young fellas are going to say, ‘Oh, we have to get this far and then stop again’,” Binsiar said. “I want to show people that Australia is truly a generous, generous mob of people. If you are willing to work, people will help.”
Buttah Windee in remote WA now has clean water thanks to solar hydropanel technology
A fight for safe drinking water at Buttah Windee in Western Australia has been a fight for the survival of the community, and a battle they are proud to have won on their own.
The remote Aboriginal community is 760 kilometres north-east of Perth on the outskirts of Meekatharra.
Almost a decade ago, resident Andrew Binsiar discovered the community’s water was tainted with naturally occurring uranium at more than twice the national health standard.
“I was actually very surprised,” he said.
“You’d imagine people would test the water for human consumption before people are allowed to drink it.”
Unable to drink the community’s tap water, most of the 50 people who lived at Buttah Windee left.
Too expensive to fix: State Government
But for Andrew Binsiar and his wife Janine, leaving the home where they had raised their five children was not an option.
He turned to the State Government for help, but was told fixing the water supply would be too expensive.
“They come out and put up ‘do not drink the water’ signs and that was their solution to it,” Mr Binsiar said.
The State Government offered to move the remaining residents into state housing in Meekatharra, but Mr Binsiar was apprehensive about exposing his family to the town’s social issues.
“We knocked them back … for the simple reason I’d already been there and done that. My life changed when I moved here,” he said.
“I wasn’t a very good father when I lived in Meeka.”
Solar hydropanels pull water from air
Almost a decade on, Buttah Windee is the first remote Aboriginal community in Australia to use innovative technology for its water supply.
Six solar hydropanels have been installed at the outback community, donated by a WA company who heard about the community’s plight and wanted to help out.
Director of Wilco Electrical Frank Mitchell said the units captured water from the air and produced up to 900 litres of water a month.
“Those fans, you can hear them whirring away, are just drawing in air all day, all around, and the piece of material inside collects … the moisture in the air, then condenses down into the tank where it’s got a pump straight out to the tap,” he said.
Mr Binsiar said it was a simple idea, which should be introduced to all remote communities.
“Water is a basic human right that everyone deserves,” he said.
“It could mean better health for your children … I would guarantee that most communities have bad water.”
Crowdfunding rallies support
The near decade-long battle for clean drinking water has not come easily for the Buttah Windee residents, with Mr Binsiar turning to crowdfunding as a last resort.
Word spread quickly when Mr Binsiar began the fundraising campaign last year, and people from across Australia donated nearly $26,000 in three months.
“It was a huge success. The Australian public have been awesome,” he said.
Mr Binsiar used the funds to install a reverse osmosis water treatment plant.
“Reverse osmosis takes out all the contaminants in the water … on the back end of it, it puts the minerals your body needs back into the water,” he said.
“They’ve given us a chance where no-one else would and we are really proud of what we have done here.”
Barramundi fish farm to boost employment
The two separate systems now supply the community with safe drinking water and enough water to run a small barramundi fish farm.
Mr Binsiar and several residents built the fish farm hoping it would eventually provide local employment and a potential source of income.
“Hopefully we can continue on and make it bigger and provide this region with fresh barramundi,” he said.
“I’d like to welcome everyone out to Buttah Windee and come and look at the work we do.”