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.

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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.


Anticipation

22/02/2015

Sometimes a post just won’t write itself, no matter how hard I try. This was one such post, which I must have started 10 days ago. It wouldn’t gel and no matter how hard I pushed and poked it refused to develop into any useful form. I’m settled enough in my writing skin to know to stop pushing when it gets like this; at some point, the thing that was blocking it will become apparent and I’ll resolve it, or a new solution will emerge. This time, it was the latter.

The theme of the post when I started was the (then) impending cyclone or two to our north. There was the possibility of storms, and king tides, which hardly seemed real as February has been one continuous Top End-style build up, with dark clouds brewing and brooding without ever being unleashed upon us. One such cloud hung over the naphtha tower without coming to anything. (I love the way the cloud looks like some unholy fume, like Isengard.)

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The tides have been incredibly low, allowing me to walk down the creek bed all the way to Maitland Road bridge and into Throsby Creek. This is by no means the lowest of those low tides; at one point the there was almost no water apart from the beck right down here.

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Tonight was different, and not just for the fact that there was water. This was fresh water, backed up from the TAFE weir. Why do?

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The force of the flood had once again stripped the beds of water hyacinth that build up in the old Styx that feeds from Gregson Park. Huge great islands of the stuff had banked up around litter boom causing the fresh water to pond behind it. The colours were so fresh and vivid that they cheered up an otherwise grim section of the creek.

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And in the middle, a Big Red Car.

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If you see a Wiggle, let them know where it is!


Isengard

04/01/2015

I think it was in The Two Towers that Saruman created Isengard, his horrible HQ, to turn the bad elves into orcs and to burn all the trees to power his Dark Machinery and … stuff. I can’t remember the details but it was generally agreed among the hobbits and the nice elves that this was a Bad Thing.

The naphtha tower at the gasworks is a bit like a modern-day Isengard: its looming presence a source of noxious pollution, despoiling the landscape for miles around.

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But to be honest I just can’t get cranky with it. In fact I really like it. And I’m going to stick my neck out here: I reckon that it’s become the Nobbys Lighthouse of inner Newcastle.

On our walks around the creek and the gasworks me and Jambo often bump into folk. They’re out walking too, but usually for different reasons. I’ve met students on their way to TAFE, a guy with a terminal illness who sees out his days by collecting tennis balls from the water, kids on bodgy quad bikes tearing up the mud, blokes with nets catching poddy mullet for bait while their girlfriends harrumph and fume in the car on Chatham Road, kids with shopping bags full of aerosol cans, guys with bicycles loaded up with stolen dog food, and on a regular basis I’ll see groups doing fashion shoots / album covers / uni portfolio work. And all of them, like a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, are drawn to the naphtha tower.

I’m not sure if it’s because if its size and shape, this huge vertical edifice rising from the flattened landscape. I don’t think so because there’s half a dozen fuel towers on the southern side of the creek, and no one photographs them. It could be the POAS and CUBE roll-ups that immediately draw the eye and add a human element.

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Where I’m from, in Cumbria in the UK, there’s been an explosion in the number of wind farms over the last two decades. I know people who hate them with a passion, and I mean really hate them. Wind farm developments have been halted where they might impact on the aesthetic value of the Lake District National Park and there are numerous objections to those that do exist.

And yet these same people hold up as shining examples of the area’s “natural beauty” the rolling fells and the lichen-encrusted drystone walls. Those fells are only rolling because they’re a post-industrial landscape, denuded of trees by the gangs that burnt charcoal for the early iron smelters. And those characteristic drystone walls? I see them and I see two things: the backbreaking slave labour that was necessary in order for them to exist; and the affront to nature and the senses of a manmade boundary carving through a hillside like some map of the Middle East or central Africa. (This photo from here.)

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Our landscape, and our interpretation of it as either beautiful or hideously ugly, is the end result of generations of historical accidents. I was in northern Victoria this week, in the foothills of the high country, and the landholder I was with pointed to a series of naked paddocks and proudly told me how he’d “cleaned up” all that land. “Clean” was not the word that sprang to mind when I looked at it, though I could see that it was indeed productive country, just as the fells of Cumbria are “clean” and productive. Only today, as I was typing this post, a friend sent me a picture and a story that puts this whole predicament in a nutshell. Marie-Anne wrote:

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I was out exploring this morning and became quite smitten with the part of Lambton Park where the creek naturalises. So much so that I took photos of the spot where it’s swallowed up by concrete drain. An old bloke came up from the other side, asking if I was from Council or at least taking photos to complain to Council. Where I saw an oasis of rampant lushness, he saw a mess that should be tidied up and concreted underground! We were each so surprised by the other’s perspective that we stopped to have a laugh about it.

My brother-in-law remembers the Manchester of his childhood being dotted with mill stacks. When the industry died and they were knocked down people couldn’t wait to see the back of them; now those same folk pine for the disappeared landscape of their childhood.

As part of Jemena’s clean up of the gasworks site Isengard will, unfortunately, have to go. It’s such a shame. I’ll miss it, and I’ll miss POAS and CUBE and the landmark which, like Nobbys at the foreshore, dominates and creates a visual focus for Hamilton North.

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