In site


[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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Big yellow disc in the sky


Apart from not liking it at all, the recent wintry blast that huddled over Newcastle was brilliant. It made me appreciate the return of the sun in a way that rarely happens in sun-kissed Australia. This morning’s walk down the drain was spectacular: clean and clear and crisp. Yellow-tailed cockatoos croaked and groaned in a  wattle by the railway bridge, herons and egrets fished by the beck, swallows swooped above the water, fuscous honeyeaters trilled in the lantana.


By the little drain the bracken is shooting up faster than Japanese bamboo and the pair of chestnut teal are preparing their nest.


I say “the pair of chestnut teal” as though it’s always the same pair. I have no scientific evidence for this, and it’s probably about six dozen of them that I’ve seen over the years, but I only ever see one pair at a time I find it unscientifically and anthropomorphically comforting to think that they like hanging around this stretch of the drain as much as I do.

So it was rather alarming to see this article by Joanne McCarthy about the gasworks in todays Herald. Tomorrow I’m going on a guided tour of the site with a Jemena rep. If you have any questions you’d like me to put to him, ask now.

In the meantime, enjoy the sunshine, get your laundry dry and don’t drink the bore water.

If you want to get ahead


… get a hat.


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.


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.


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.


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

The night has a thousand eyes


No, not that old Bobby Vee song (though now the chorus is going round in my head like serious ear-worm material). Bobby Vee had trouble with his girlfriend going off and canoodling on the beach with Some Other Guy (I hope it wasn’t the chap in the video in the blue budgie-smugglers and gyrating hips; if so, Bobby’s done for). And someone saw her doing it!

Nowadays we all see everything. And then we photograph it. And upload it to Facebook, or Instragram, or Flickr, or Twitter, or …

The sunset on Monday night was indeed spectacular. Confronted with Nature in all its magnificence I did what anyone of my age and demographic in possession of a smart phone would do: I snapped it.


Not very well, because it’s a smart phone, not a camera, and because I’m not a good photographer.

The next day I find that half of Newcastle was pointing some kind of device towards the heavens; the Herald had an entire section of the sunset from a million different angles.

Why do I find this phenomenon of mass recording, of which I am a part, so perturbing? Is it because seeing all these images gathered together reminds me of what a herd animal I am? Of how unoriginal I am? Of what a rotten photographer I am?

And what will happen to all this recorded data in 2056 when the first-wave smart-phone-owning generation start to drop off the perch? Will their children lovingly scroll through their parents’ selfies and snaps of burritos by the beach and … sunsets?

There was a time when it was enough for me to tilt my head back and look at a sunset. I need to go back there.

It’s nobody’s problem


Herald journo Ben Smee did a neat a piece on the litter in the Carrington mangroves, with a talky bit to camera by your’s truly. After much detailed investigation Scoop Smee discovered that all that mess in the Carrington mangroves is, in fact, nobody’s problem.

Well I’m glad that that’s sorted!

Much to the relief of the not-responsible organisations we had a tropical low on Saturday, the day the story appeared, and so the creek filled with a torrent and conveniently washed all that nasty litter away. To somewhere else, somewhere where it’s someone else’s responsibility. Maybe the UN. WHO. ASIO. Who cares, as long as it’s not us.


It was a mighty powerful flush all right. This branch probably doesn’t look much here but I can assure you it was bloody big. I took this photo on Saturday afternoon, getting Jambo out for a leg-stretch between squalls.


I was told that the tides on the Gold Coast were huge. They must have been pretty big here in Newcastle too as I was amazed to see the tide pushing back against the deluge this far up the system; it wasn’t even high tide for another few hours.


I was also amazed to see this lot. Plastic bottles really are to floods what cockroaches are to nuclear armageddon.


What does it take to get rid of them? (Did someone say “container deposit legislation”?)

This story does have a kind of happy ending. Ben’s article prompted a bunch of staff from Port Waratah Coal Services to get out and do an emu bob around the mangroves. Nice bit of PR for the coal loader, the volunteers did some great work and we all get a cleaner mangrove. I just hope we can somehow keep on top of the problem, that some authority will put their hand up and take responsibility.

As a small postscript, I sent an email to PWCS asking whoever received it to pass on my thanks and congratulations to the volunteers for getting out there and making a difference. I received an automated reply that said: “Thank you for contacting PWCS. Please be aware that emails delivered to this mailbox will not be read/actioned until Monday 7 January 2013. If the matter is urgent, please call the PWCS 24 hour Community Enquiry Line ,4907 2280, and follow the prompts. Thank You”

It’s reassuring to know that it doesn’t matter how big the organisation, it still takes some bunny to turn off the automatic email response when you get back from holiday. Wonder how many emails they’ve missed in the last seven weeks!


Artist’s impression


Of all the things that intrigued me about the Herald‘s coverage of the NSW Government’s decision to cut the city rail link, the most interesting was the slideshow of artist’s impressions of a post-rail CBD. Perhaps it was the amateurish standard of the work, or the lack of imagination (so this is what we’re supposed to get excited about?), but I was left feeling puzzled and bemused rather than inspired. However, one ‘before and after’ that did catch my eye was their vision for Cottage Creek.

Chicks and Chucks, I give you ‘before’. Booo!


And I give you ‘after’. Hooray!


The differences appear to be that ‘after’ has (a) people, (b) a board walk and (c) a narrower channel.

I don’t want to get all snarky, it is after all a bit of pop promo, but I am intrigued as to why they chose to illustrated an enhanced Cottage Creek as part of the benefits of cutting the rail link. There’s nothing in the ‘after’ pic that couldn’t be done right now, if getting people to walk down the drains is part of the city’s ‘transport revolution’.

Ooh! Is that it, Barry? Jeff? Is that what you really want? Oh, tell me it’s so!