The quality of light


I’ve never really understood the difference between ordinary trains and Country Link trains. I do know a few things:

  • You can’t just get on any old Country Link train and sit anywhere.
  • Country Link trains don’t go to the normal places that city people go to.
  • When you’re under the bridge on Styx Creek and one goes over the top it sounds different to the ones that go to Telarah, or coal trains, or goods trains.
  • They have tinted windows so when I’m down the creek and one goes past (a regular occurrence in the afternoon as I tend to walk Jambo about the same time one heads north) and the train decides to pause for a breather on the bridge a lovely light casts itself down into the the concrete. Here’s proof.


Never gets old


The incorrigible Showbag popped this into my in-tray recently; I started a post and then somehow it got swept away in the Blah.

Anyway, here it snow. Such a modest wee graffito (pun intended). He found it on Clyde Street, near where the fig trees used to be that nobody chained themselves to when they got cut down.


The post on his tumblr account was called “Fertility symbol”, but the image itself was titled “nevergetsold”. I know what he means!

Balls and bullets


Catchy heading, but it does describe two of the most common things I find in the drain.


The balls come in all shapes and sizes: soccer balls, hockey balls, cricket balls, tennis balls, those useless plastic balls you see in ball pits at children’s playgrounds (I don’t know where the nearest one is to us but I see them in the goddam thousands), and handballs.

Handballs are the only type of ball that Jambo will chase. Perhaps it’s the unpredictable bounce that reminds him of skittering, shifty rats.


The other common thing I see is bullets for Nerf guns. As the incorrigible Risky Digits might say, Oh my holy Jesus born of the Immaculate Mary! If I see one of these things I must see a gazillion! Is there some kind of Nerf war going on in the headwaters of the Styx?

I came across a few young lads in Izzo school who’d been on a collection of their own and had found themselves on the wrong side of the fence when the tide came in, so I spent a few minutes chucking their collected ball and bullet stash over to them. Thank goodness these young people are out and about, ridding the waterways of foamy nasties.


Balls and bullets: be gone from this place.

Dead birds


I see lots of them, and as much as I love birds I rarely react in the way that I do if I see, say, a dead puppy or drowned kitten.


Dead magpies are a dime a dozen, though disembodied ducks are a little more rare.


However, I groaned aloud when I saw this tawny frogmouth. Nooo! I don’t like the idea of these guys dying; I imagine them living a very long and much-loved life then going off the to Great Branch in the Sky to take up that funny posture of theirs and make that curious grunting noise with all their frog-mouthed friends. Not die of some parasite infestation and fall from a fig tree during the night.


Nature’s a tough old bird.

The Masked Avenger Rides Amongst Us


I’m a bit of Cautious Colin when it comes to the creek. The idea of being swept away and my bloated corpse bobbing up among the mangroves at the Carrington board walk is most unappealing. So I tend to avoid the drain even when it’s just spitting, let alone belting down.


Having said that, I do have a fascination for those entrance ways that appear every so often in the creek bank – they’re like wormholes into other universes, brimful of possibility.


If the weather’s been dry and the water level’s down I’ll poke my nose in, if only to see how the swallows are going with their latest brood.


So I was startled the other day to see this cove cycling down the drain. I did a double take: has he really got a stocking pulled over his face? He has! And is heading towards Izzo? Not at all! When I least expected it he took a sharp right and pedalled straight into the tunnel never to be seen ever again!!!!


Who is this man? Is he the Drain Ranger? Is he righting watery wrongs across the Cottage Creek catchment? Or … gasp … is he a Bad Man? I may never know.

Unless, of course, I head into the tunnel myself …

Lach it in, Eddie


Everyone loves a quiz. Well, I do.

Got a great one from Lachlan: six maps of Hamilton North, none of them dated. Can you rank them, from oldest to most recent?

Map 1


Map 2


Map 3


Map 4


Map 5


Map 6


Bon chance, mes amis!

In site


[This post was originally written on 7 October; clearance from Jemena’s legal team came through at 11.03pm on 3 November.]

After several false starts I finally managed to hook up with Jeff Williams, the person overseeing the remediation works at the former gasworks site on Clyde Street / Chatham Road. Smile for the camera, Jeff!


That’s us inside the brick bungalow at the Chatham Road entrance, which has been converted into a site office for the duration of the works. We introduced ourselves, I signed in, Jeff laid down the law and off we went.

We’d barely stepped outside when my attention was diverted by sound and action across the creek, in the former Shell fuel depot. A group of guys with a trailer-mounted drilling rig were preparing test holes for their remediation work. It’s all go in Ham North.


I asked Jeff who had the biggest task: those remediating the gasworks or the fuel depot? The answer is the gasworks, by a long (a very long) margin. Most of the fuel depot’s pipework is apparently above ground or is made up of relatively secure in-ground works and so the volume of soil that will need to be treated is much smaller, and the toxins of a more stable nature. I think.

We walked towards the area of the site that used to be occupied by ELGAS and used as an LPG bottle refilling station, mostly the metal “pick up and go” bottles you see at service stations. It’s now cordoned off while the debris is checked for hazardous material.

At our feet were lots of kiln bricks, like this one, that display green coloration. The green is from arsenic, one of the many hazardous elements and chemicals that are released into the atmosphere when coal is burnt at the temperatures necessary to make town gas and coke. Just hearing the word “arsenic” is enough to make anyone a little uncomfortable. Jeff tells me that, in this state, it’s stable – a bit like asbestos when it’s part of unbroken fibro. Still, I wasn’t game to pick it up.


Beyond the ELGAS bottling site is a circle of concrete with a crushed sandstone bed. This is all that’s left of the naphtha tower. Seeing that tower go was such a sad occasion. Sure I understand that Jemena flagged it in clean-up newsletters but I still think it was a wasted opportunity and poor decision. If it had been the source of all filth then I could have been swayed, but as Jeff noted there was no leakage whatsoever from the tank itself, the evidence being in the clean sandy bed. Such a shame.


The site is now full of mounds like the one below, covered in white tarps held down with bricks. Beneath the tarps are stacks of dirt or bricks – whole stacks of them like the green-tinged brick in the above picture. Jeff explained the hydrology of the site, with the water table moving at about (I think, I wasn’t very good at keeping notes) 3 metres per day diagonally across the site, from around the Clyde Street railway lights towards the bend in Styx Creek.


This flow has implications for the subterranean movement of pollutants and toxins. The whole site is pocked with test bores to measure the levels of pollutants and I was surprised to hear how localised the distribution could be. At some places (the long strip next to Chatham Road, for instance) it is relatively clean. The most polluted parts of the site are the former tar wells, seen here.


The tar wells were basically just pits in the ground to store the worst of the worst, the dirtiest end products of gas-making that couldn’t be processed and on-sold in the same way as bitumen and naphtha. Here it sat until it was … well, frankly I don’t know. There was plenty of evidence of the semi-liquid goo. With summer on the way this stuff will increase in viscosity, as it has been doing every summer for the last several decades. This is probably the most worrying aspect of the site, and presents the most difficult aspect of the clean up.


Scattered on the south-eastern corner of the site were large deposits of coke, left over from the gas burning days. As we walked around here we could see the huge circular foundations of the storage towers, visible for the first time in many years since the clearance of the lantana and vegetation that had taken over the place.

There’s a stand of pines in the area that must once have been the site manager’s residence. Most of the trees are protected as part of the Newcastle City Council LEP which has a heritage listing on the garden of the manager’s dwelling, though some of the trees have obviously sprouted since the gasworks’ closure as they rooted (like this one) in the centre of a former gas holder location.


Jeff outlined the process that Jemena will go through to remediate the site. Looking at the notes I made on my phone, I see phrases like “quenching” and “natural attenuation” and “thermal desorption”. But my role here isn’t to explain or justify any one method over another; there’s a huge sign on the front gate now with a URL and an email address if you want to know that technical stuff.

After we’d finished our tour we chatted for a while and Jeff talked about his work history, and then his own personal reasons for wanting to see the job done properly. I’m convinced; convinced, at least, that this guy wants to do the best job for the site to the best of his personal and professional abilities. But hearing this is rather like hearing analysis of the polls before an election: at this point it’s no more than plans and intentions and expectations, the could-bes and should-bes. And, like an election, there is really only one measure that counts. What will we, the residents of Hamilton North, be looking at in one, two, five or ten years’ time when we drive down Chatham Road?

Journalist Joanne McCarthy has been spearheading the Toxic Truth campaign in the Herald. If there’s one thing that people living in Boolaroo and Willliamtown and Hamilton North know, it’s that there will be an end point. Some organisation or business or statutory authority in charge of the clean up will say, “Our job is finished”. This is not necessarily the same as “This job has been done to the best of our ability and in a way that best suits the residents of this area, and their children, and their children’s children”.

I don’t mean to sound cynical or pessimistic. But right now is our best chance to get the best result for our suburb. Jemena has committed a substantial budget to the process, and in spite of a lackadaisical approach in times past the EPA and the PAC are also committed.

It’s incumbent upon us to make sure that those delivered with the responsibility of amending the failings of the past do so in a way that can be measured as environmental best practice – not simply ticking boxes or meeting dollar-based criteria.

Like you, I shall be watching with interest.