A coincidence

01/04/2016

Okay, so it’s April Fool’s Day, but I did not deliberately set out post about Jemena’s clean up of the gasworks site on this day. It is a coincidence!

Jemena held a community information session at the Hamilton North Bowling Club on Tuesday. There was food, so how could I not go?

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The guys from GHD were there, and people from another organisation with a name made up of letters, something like AJC&P. Why do organisations do that? They’re impossible to remember. Or maybe (dons paranoia hat) that’s the point! I’ll call them Acme Productions for easiness.

Anyway, everyone I spoke to was helpful and informative. Michael and Melissa from GHD and Beatrice from Acme Productions were able to answer all of my rambling questions. (“Hmm. I think you’ve actually asked me three questions there. I’ll try to pick them apart for you.”)

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As well as tote bags and spring rolls and meat pies (note to caterers: give up making sandwiches. I know you’ve got to provide a “healthy alternative” but no one’s eating them) there were displays with process flow charts and details on remediation options.

As I’ve said before, I believe that everyone in that room is genuinely doing their best to achieve the best outcome. The cynic in me can’t be quelled though. I know what happens when the men in suits get together. It’s simply a function of bureaucracies, from CSIRO to universities to the RTA.

But there will be an outcome. At some point in the not-too-distant future the gasworks will be much, much less dirty and polluted than it is now. And it’ll be on-sold for some other purpose: storage units, transport hub, Chinese funfair. Should I be happy with this? I know I never will be as I have other ambitions for that whole area, ambitions that will remain unrealised because no one would make a zac from it.

As an aside, the only people I don’t get to meet at Jemena’s open sessions are the people from Jemena. They tend to huddle by themselves while the folk from GHD and Acme Productions do the leg work and the talky stuff. Come on, guys: mingle!

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The major outcome from the evening was the fancy-schmantzy cap I got in my tote bag. I can now retire my much-loved but distressingly knackered Oxford University cap to the bin.

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I’m not a spokesman for a community or in any way representative of anything other than my own nosiness. And so, as ever, I wait. And watch.

Happy April, everyone.

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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.


Thinking outside the oval

01/02/2016

Got a letter from Jemena regarding the next stages of the gasworks’ clean up. It seems that we’re in the stage of organisations talking to one another and agreeing on exactly what should be done, when and at what cost. There are however still things going on, with trucks and utes going in and out on a fairly regular basis.

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The wheels (and caterpillar tracks) are well and truly in motion but I do often ponder the possible alternative futures for this huge open-space area. A wetland linked to a revitalised Styx. (It can be done. Here’s an example from Stamford, New England, USA.) A parkland and dog-walking area. A native bush regeneration scheme.

But that’s too obvious. What we need is a teenager’s perspective. Enter Lachlan:

My 14 year old son is obsessed with sport, and particularly with cricket at the moment and he reckons “they” (the mythical “they” who ought to do stuff) should build a cricket ground in Newcastle capable of hosting Test, ODI and T20 matches. I set him a little task of speculative urban planning, on thinking where “they” could build such a stadium, and I suggested the old gasworks site. As a little experiment, we grabbed an image of the Sydney Cricket Ground and laid it over the gasworks site in Google Earth at the same scale to see if it would fit.

Not only did it fit, it looks like it belongs there!

He’s right, you know!

HNCG


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.


If you want to get ahead

23/11/2014

… get a hat.

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Who wears fedoras any more? No one with a brain, if Google’s anything to go by. I typed in “who+wears+fedoras” and the top 10 hits had titles like “20 reasons you shouldn’t date men who wear fedoras”, “Do women really not like the whole ‘fedora’ persona?” and “Cool or tool?” One site took the “guns don’t kill people” approach with its heading of “The Fedora isn’t the problem – the men wearing them are”. Which I wasn’t tempted to click on, but did raise in my mind the issue about how English, even when grammatically correct, can be horribly inelegant. And there went 13 minutes of my day.

The old bottle gassing building is getting more and more of a spray paint makeover. The boys have gotten tired with jumping the wire or unravelling the chain link. This solution is, like the title of the fedora website, functional and correct but definitely inelegant.

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It’s odd to think that it’ll be gone soon, along with the naphtha tower and all the other bits of pieces of infrastructure. It’s a necessary evil, as the contents of this test pit illustrate.

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This stuff has sulked in hardened nuggets throughout winter but as summer comes and the soil warms, the viscosity changes and sets it in motion.

This weekend the Herald republished a story that originally appeared in the Griffith Review back in 2003. It’s a story by Andrew Belk, formerly of Boolaroo, and describes lead-smelter Pasminco’s cavalier approach to the residents there. Jemena has a more enlightened approach but it’s still a reminder of how we as a community can deliberately blind ourselves to the way that big business treats our environment, even if it results in threats to our children’s health and future.

Where I’m from in the UK people hate the offshore wind farms but love the nuclear reprocessing plant. This map of UK earnings is a clue: work at the plant and you’re likely to be earning almost as much as someone in the Home Counties. Don’t work there and you’re in the bottom percentile for the nation. And wind farm operators don’t sponsor the kids’ football kits.

The hat was gone next day and I thought someone had souvenired it, maybe thought they’d wear it down the foreshore and impress the ladies. But not. It turned up a day or so later, a bit knocked about, a bit wetter. Seems no one wants to get ahead in a fedora.

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Never elegant, and no longer functional. Bit like the gasworks, really.


A long, slow job

18/08/2014

Some years ago the cub reporter at the Centralian Advocate was despatched to cover the local Crafts Council’s annual exhibition. Looking at the rows of crochet work and the felting, the yards and yards printing and knitting, the cub began her article with the immortal words “Hours and hours of tedious work went into this year’s annual Alice Springs craft show”.

I was reminded of that line when I saw the guys fixing up the creek next to the gasworks. It’ll take a long time and a lot of work before they even know exactly how much time they have to spend and work they have to do. The ELGAS mob moved out at the end of June; there were a few late nights with cranes and trucks but then, one day, there was no KOFM wafting across the creek in the early morning.

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A section of the drain was sandbagged off while they fossicked around. I don’t claim to have any understanding of the science behind the process (I assume it’s related to the monitoring that’s been carried on over several years by the EPA) but, out of all the possible places to start working, this was where it began.

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If you look downstream from the Chatham Road bridge you’ll see them down there most mornings. Because of the time of year they only get a wee bit of sunshine before 7 am, then the sun disappears behind the trees on the northern banking. It must be bloody cold work.

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As I say, I’m no scientist and I’ve no idea what they’re actually doing. All I know is that it involves drills and probes and some goo getting pumped underneath the concrete, then all the cracks sealed up.

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When I asked about the process I was told by a young lad that it was “environmentally friendly”. I had to suppress a smile; he was so nervous and guarded and had been told “If anyone asks, tell them it’s environmentally friendly. Especially if it’s some nosey old git with a terrier”. I hardly expected him to say anything else, I just wanted to know what the process was. Never mind.

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It took them about three or four weeks to do one section of slab. At this rate they’ll be there all year; I mean, look at that Grand Canyon-like fissure. In the words of the Centralian Advocate‘s cub reporter, they’ve got hours and hours of tedious work ahead of them.


Meanwhile, back at the Bowlo

25/06/2014

It was cold and horrible and I thought I’d be the only one to bother, but as it turned out there was a fair crowd at the Hamilton North Bowling Club to meet the mob from Jemena and GHD and hear about the proposed gasworks remediation.

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There were posters and there’s a flyer and next month there’ll be a website but the short version is this: 2014, poke around and find out how bad things are then work out what to do; 2015, do it.

Exactly what the “it” will be has yet to be decided and will depend entirely on the results of the poking around and discussions with the EPA. However, it will most likely involve bringing the site up to a point at which it can be sold off for some kind of commercial or light industrial use. Jemena is into energy retail, and holding onto bits of dead land does not figure in the list of “core business activities” in its annual report.

The work to drill the monitoring wells is finished.

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The lovely Creek Bingo numbers relate to work in sealing up the worst parts of the crumbling concrete banking, thereby reducing the flow of pollutants from within the gasworks footprint and into the Styx.

I’ll be happy-sad to see work start. Happy that no longer will the creek be filled with oozing filth. Sad that no longer will the wrens and silvereyes, fuscous honeyeaters and grey goshawks have anywhere to live.

Apparently the Shell fuel depot is also moving off site and has also entered into a remediation agreement with the EPA. I’ll be less sad to see that one go; it’s far too well maintained to be of any useful habitat for native fauna, and I won’t miss the heavy stench of petrol that settles into the creek on a winter’s evening.

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I’ll post as I learn anything useful, such as links to the EPA agreements.

On another topic, Newcastle City Council’s personal ombudsman Mark Sampson notified me that Council recently passed a motion to name nine tributaries of local creeks, including one of the Styx. Yes, peeps, expect to start seeing signage for Waterdragon Creek popping up around Kotara way any time now. Apparently the “community name “’Waterdragon”’ recognises the strong and healthy waterdragon population in and around the creek”.

Blue-tongue Creek might be a better name for down by the tidal zone. I found this poor wee fella the other night, looking cold and bruised and missing his tail.

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Whether he’d been crow-pecked or cat-bashed I don’t know, but I think he must have slid down the concrete banking and had no idea which way to go or what to do to get out. When I picked him up he arched his neck and gave me the most feeble hiss, so I popped him in amongst the lantana. He might make it but, frankly, I don’t rate his chances.

And, anyway, when the gasworks is covered in storage units he’ll need to find some other corner of derelict Newcastle to hide out. But that’s a story for another day.