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

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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.


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.


Friday foto

10/07/2015

Oh what a feeling.

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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!


A constant in a crowded market

23/01/2015

I’m no expert, but it seems that most graffiti tag names tend to be single syllable: POAS, CUBE, OBEY, GUNZ, HACK and so on. I thought that this one was BLUE until I met him and discovered it was BLUF. Go figure.

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It’s a crowded market though and, inevitably, even the most creative taggers run out of single-syllable names. I’ve seen a lot  more of the likes of this:

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and this:

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One constant amongst all this flux and turmoil is our old mucker H-Foot.

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There are a lot of small things that, collectively, make H-Foot different to other taggers. Choice of medium (pen rather than can) is the most obvious. At one level this could imply a lack of the kind of commitment shown by the old school roll-up artists who had to steal wheelie bins and haul them – loaded with 20 litre paint tins, trays, rollers and poles – around the drains, building sites and railway lines of the city. Even the aerosol kids are making a significant commitment in terms of the amount of time they have to spend on site, and there’s always the issue of being caught with a green bag full of rattling cans.

H-Foot not only prefers the quick in-and-out of the fat pen, s/he has even used stickers for über-fast stick-ups.

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It’s not just the medium that’s different; there’s a difference in H-Foot’s intent too. Sure, the “I was here” impulse is similar (why else the stickers?) but there’s also a sly humour that sets H-Foot’s work apart.

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Show some respect, kids!

H-Foot’s confidence as a social commentator appears to be growing. The emergence of this kind of public satire is the critical departure point for the artist from the “Notice me!” culture of much street art.

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In the white noise that characterises much of the painted adornment of our built environment (Did I really just write that?), H-Foot stands out as a constant for humour and inventiveness.

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Keep hoppin’, H-Foot!


Rot and decay

13/10/2014

It’s still spring and so I should be thinking about new life and Nature’s fecundity and so on, but our recent warmer weather has also reminded me that in the midst of life is … well, you know what. This pile of cuttings in the Council pen in Richardson Park looks like it belongs on a 1980s Smiths LP cover.

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The blooms were perfect. It was as though an evil Super Villain had gone around town, determined to make everyone unhappy by stealing all the best flowers. Mwa ha ha!

The lads in the creek seem to have finished squirting their goo under the concrete. The science behind the process is completely beyond me but I assume that the goo somehow retards the flow of toxins into the water table. Good luck, I say. The warm weather has really got things moving in the gasworks and it’ll take a lot of goo to stop that.

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How big is the gasworks site? I’d say it’s about 10 hectares or so. That’s about 10 hectares of subterranean bituminous gunk with a life of its own, spreading at about 1 centimetre a day.

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Yuk.