Ugly rainbows

10/03/2016

They come and go in the gasworks: trucks, utes, men in hi-viz. Things are happening, and though we all got a letter from Jemena in the post I found it to be uninformative and only allowing them to tick the “engaging with community” box on the KPIs.

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You know what would work better than a website or newsletters? A blackboard at the gate upon which the contractors write who they are and what they’re doing that day. Easy.

Meanwhile, over the fuel depot, not much at all is going on. Which is a worry because, with this lovely warm weather, any material that increases in viscosity and mobility is taking the opportunity to move around the water table. At the edge of the beck there’s a permanent residue of emulsified oily byproducts that seeps out from beneath a crack in the creek bed.

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When the sun is at the right angle you can see a rainbow scudding across the surface of the water as the fuel (or whatever it is) leaches downstream.

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Rainbows are supposed to be pretty. This one is so very, very ugly.


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.