f8 and be there

08/04/2016

That’s the quote attributed to Arthur WeeGee Fellig and, though most snappers these days wouldn’t know an f-stop from a developing tray, the last two words still apply. It was certainly the case this afternoon when Lachlan was making the cycle ride home along bumpy Clyde Street and got the pleasant surprise of a little bit of SteamFest.

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For the real steam heads there’s a snippet of video too, here.

Of course, if Lachlan’s dream of a more picturesque cycleway was ever realised he’d miss out on things like this, which just goes to show. Huh?


Never gets old

24/11/2015

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.

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


In site

04/11/2015

[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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


Yeah! Yeah! Naaaaaaaaaa

13/10/2015

I had a part-time job at the uni for a little while some years ago. It was a very instructive experience as I learnt a lot about how Big Organisations work. Or don’t.

I had a project that I needed to make happen but it depended upon lots of other people in different departments allowing me to carry out small but necessary tasks. Each person I discussed the project with was immensely helpful, understood what I was trying to do and promised to do their utmost to make it happen. And yet, on every single occasion, nothing did happen. Each time it turned out that they were just waiting for the new Blah to roll out or the integration of Blob and Blab or waiting for the approval of Grand Pooh Bah, who was on indefinite stress leave.

After a while I realised that each of these people was deeply sincere in their belief that they were helping me, and yet no one was actually helping me. A friend who came from an English university likened them to the crows that hang around the campus, with their endless calls of “Yeah! Yeah! Naaaaaaaaaa”.

I was recently invited on tour of the gasworks site by a rep of Jemena. I took photos and the rep and I chatted and it was, I thought, a really productive moment. All that was needed before I could post any blog comments was for PR to approve the photos I took.

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Still waiting, Jemena.


Farewell, old friend

16/09/2015

I posted on Monday about the noises coming out of the gasworks. After a while of scraping here and scratching there the contractors had finally got onto the serious work of Knocking Stuff Down. I went down the drain and had a peek in from the banking. The green metal thing where the ducks used to nest was gone and the tower was obviously next in line, and yet I still expected it to be there for a few days at least. I mean, you’d need a wrecking ball with Miley Cyrus on to take that thing out. Wouldn’t you?

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By early afternoon the tone of the sounds had changed from thumping bangs to a weirdly inhuman series of screeches. I headed down again and bumped into a couple of lads. “It’s down,” they said, barely believing it themselves. I scrambled up the banking and looked through the chain link.

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It was like seeing the body of an elephant shot by poachers or an American dentist. Surely that tiny digger could not have caused that behemoth to fall? But it had. As we watched, the digger moved around the base of the collapsed tower. The digger made pneumatic huffing and puffing sounds as though it were a living beast gathering its breath for the next part of its work. It had a kind of grabbing or cutting claw which it sunk into the wall of the tower and our ears were assaulted with the hideous animal screech I’d been hearing.

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What a shock! The tower was actually made of steel. All these years I’d assumed it was made of concrete. We moved around the bend in the creek and stood on the banking, the afternoon sun glaring in our eyes, and watched as the digger huffed and puffed round and around, tearing at the body of the downed tower. Its steel skin rippled in the sunlight as the digger’s claw dug into it.

Like the demolition of the Islington Junction Box, I felt a sadness for the loss of something that was ugly and utilitarian but a part of our industrial heritage and a landmark that we’ll soon struggle to remember ever existed. Goodbye, old mate.


Going, going …

14/09/2015

The soundtrack to my childhood is an eclectic mixture of the Tamla Motown singles my mother bought, the Highland airs on thick 78s inherited from some elderly Scottish ancestor and the comforting tunes of the Light Service on the radio. Sitting at my desk this morning I’ve been reminded of one of these latter tunes: Gentleman Jim Reeves’s I hear the sound of distant drums. Far away, faaar away.

Well, not so far away in my case. The ker-thunka-thunka-thunka-thunk I’m hearing is coming from the gasworks. It’s almost a year overdue but Jemena has got into full swing in its remediation work. From the creek I can see through the shade-cloth that they’ve put up to prevent wind-blown dust and there are large machines grading up piles of smelly soil. They’ve also worked around the edges of the naphtha tower in preparation for its demolition.

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I feel terribly sad that this filthy, polluted relic of our irresponsible industrial past is going to bite the dust. I’ve blogged before about this, and how I’d like to see it kept as a reminder and a memorial to way we once did things. It would also make a brilliant centrepiece for the Clyde Street wetlands, but that’s another post entirely.

So long, old timer.


Contrasts

26/06/2015

The sunset behind the gasworks was gorgeous the other night.

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And then, within a day or so, it was grim as buggery. Drenching rain, slippery banking, general air of miserableness.

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But just when I’m feeling flat as a tack and I’m staring blankly at The Longest Goods Train in the History of Christendom lumber across Clyde Street, I see that some kind soul has secreted this lovely flower decal against a fence post for a person such as me to spy and feel good about.

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Nice!