A coincidence


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?


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.”)


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!


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.


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.

Healthy food for all




It must be good: it’s an Australian Government Initiative!


Ugly rainbows


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.


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.


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.


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

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.

Deep Throat lives


The idea of a blog is that you write something, chuck it out there and the world either ignores it or responds. The best responses are ones like this one:

Lads can wander the drains, chaps with dogs can wander the drains.
I had to walk home from Georgetown to Tighes Hill, from an appointment, recently and I gave a moment’s thought to walking beside the drains. “I might meet Mark”, I thought, “and say hello”.
But then I realised: an eighty-year-old female, her broken hand in plaster, walking beside the drains, someone would surely ring welfare agencies and interfere.
Not fair.
At least I was able to take a short cut through the TAFE.

And this:

Do you have a location that a 71-year-old, with a bad knee, might be able to access the system? We briefly walk beside it, and have a look into it, every time we walk from our parking spot to the Hunter Stadium for soccer and league games. I’d love to have a walk along it.

I’m seriously going to have to get onto Hunter Water and re-discuss the issue of access to the creek, not just for me but for all my older drain-loving buddies.


At other times the messages are less light-hearted. They are, in fact, intriguing to the point of being unnerving. I’m neither Woodward nor Bernstein, and this blog is hardly the Washington Post, but I did get an email recently after the Goo story post about the state of the gasworks. In it were contained detailed instructions on how to access information from various websites: “enter this URL …. scroll down to X … scroll back up to Y … enter [search term] …” and so on. I felt rather like Kevin Costner meeting Donald Sutherland’s Mr X in JFK.


So much secrecy over a silly gasworks!

By the way, yes, I am still waiting to hear from Jemena’s PR people about clearance of the photos that I took in there on my walking tour.

Yeah! Yeah! Naaaaaaaaaa


I had a part-time job at the uni for a little while some years ago. It was a very instructive experience as I learnt a lot about how Big Organisations work. Or don’t.

I had a project that I needed to make happen but it depended upon lots of other people in different departments allowing me to carry out small but necessary tasks. Each person I discussed the project with was immensely helpful, understood what I was trying to do and promised to do their utmost to make it happen. And yet, on every single occasion, nothing did happen. Each time it turned out that they were just waiting for the new Blah to roll out or the integration of Blob and Blab or waiting for the approval of Grand Pooh Bah, who was on indefinite stress leave.

After a while I realised that each of these people was deeply sincere in their belief that they were helping me, and yet no one was actually helping me. A friend who came from an English university likened them to the crows that hang around the campus, with their endless calls of “Yeah! Yeah! Naaaaaaaaaa”.

I was recently invited on tour of the gasworks site by a rep of Jemena. I took photos and the rep and I chatted and it was, I thought, a really productive moment. All that was needed before I could post any blog comments was for PR to approve the photos I took.


Still waiting, Jemena.

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.

Goo story


This time last year there was a team of lads down the creek “fixing” the cracks in the concrete. I’d pass them of a morning as I took Jambo down towards the TAFE and we’d nod at one another and occasionally talk. It looked like cold work on that northern side of the beck, with the winter sun never getting onto them till the afternoon by which time they were packing up to go home.

The idea was to stop the pollutants from the gasworks from seeping into the water table and the creek. It seemed, to my unscientific mind, a completely futile act. Surely, like the Karuah bypass, it would just shove the bottleneck somewhere else.

Anyway, they did about 50 yards of concrete then, one day, they were gone.

Since then the goo they squirted under the slabs has bubbled its way to the surface, only now it looks grey and frothy and almost as bad as the toxins it was meant to contain.


There are large patches of emulsified oils, which may be from the old fuel depot. I don’t know.


The bituminous gunk has a beautiful rich purpley-black colour that isn’t done justice in this photo. It’s the colour of a raven’s wing or a magpie’s flight feather, a colour that I’ve never seen in clothing or paints.


It’s really very disheartening and fills me with a sense of gloom about the rehabilitation of the gasworks, which seems to have stalled completely. (I did see a digger in there the other day which has made a few desultory scrapes in the ground. The only thing this seemed to do was to make the air around the creek reek of bitumen.) As for the now abandoned fuel depot, I can only think what would have to happen to land prices before that got tackled with any serious intent.

Sorry to come across so dejected but I don’t think we’re going to see a clean, green Styx Creek any time soon.

Trolley season


There’s still plenty of hot weather ahead of us, even though the days are getting shorter and we’re in the last official month of summer. I’m pulling burrs and seed heads and farmer’s friends out of Jambo’s coat every time we take a stroll off the beaten path; poor thing, he’s so low to the ground that he’s a magnet for anything that needs distributing about the countryside.

The other late summer crop that I’m seeing a lot of is the shopping trolley.


I haven’t figured out how it works but I can go for weeks on end without seeing any, but as soon as one appears it’s like word’s gotten out and then there’s two …


… and three …


… and … well, I could go on.


It could be that they’ve come down in the numerous flows we’ve had since late January. That might explain the beaten-up state they’re in.


But, like Christmas baubles, they do like to gather in herds.



Perhaps they sense the onset of autumn and they’re about to begin the Great Northward Trolley Migration.

Watch out: you have been warned!

The Inspector of Nuisances


Because of my work as an editor I subscribe to the online edition of the Macquarie Dictionary. They sent me a user survey to fill in the other day; various questions about my age, previous editions of the dictionary owned, things that could be improved and so on. One question stopped and made me think: did I want to be able to see the entries immediately before and after my search word? I realised that I didn’t. One of the greatest pleasures of dictionary word searches—the serendipitous discovery—was no longer a part of my working day. When searching for a definition, the definition was all that I wanted. It was quite a sobering realisation.


In contrast, the time tunnel that is Trove has provided numerous opportunities to stumble across the delightful and arcane when searching “Styx+Creek”. Here’s the Queensland news round up from the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate of almost 127 years ago: Monday, 19 December 1887. It reads like something from Buzzfeed or Facebook (they have not been edited):

A man named Larry Pidgeon committed suicide at Croydon by shooting himself in the chest with a revolver. He had been drinking for the last fortnight.

A commercial traveller named Durkin, Brisbane, was being teased by some children. He struck a boy on the arm with his cane, breaking the limb.

A Church of England clergyman named George Horrocks pleaded guilty at the police charged with drunkenness. He was picked up in Harbot-street helplessly drunk on Thursday night, and locked up for protection. He was discharged. He is a venerable man, and a graduate of Oxford.

Which has nothing to do with why I was at this particular page.

The page describes an inspection of Throsby and Styx creeks undertaken by the mayor, a group of councillors and—oh yes! oh yes! oh yes!—”the Inspector of Nuisances”! After a lifetime in various employments I have finally, finally found the job for which I was placed on this Earth!

The newspapers from the early 20th century are filled with reports about how filthy the creek became after the arrival of the fuel depot and the Gas & Coke works, but this report describes the filth from the wool-washing works and the tannery.


Pollution from the wool wash was considered to be fairly low during regular flows, but when the creek became “sluggish” the smell became “very offensive”. The tanneries, however, were a different story:

[T]he waters opposite Tighe’s Hill were of the blackest dye, with an odour emanating therefrom sufficient to sicken one.

The tannery relocated to Maitland and, by the 1920s, there were reports of the return of “shags” (cormorants) and mullet to the creek. But then the gasworks and fuel depot really hit their straps.

A couple of years ago I wrote this post after seeing the guys from the ELGAS depot flushing their paint into the creek. I reported it to the EPA and Council, but didn’t hear anything back. The title of the post, It will always be a drain to some, proves that nothing has changed in the last century and a quarter. There has been no golden age in the relationship between white Australian and our urban waterways. We have always treated them as drains: vehicles to drain swampland for poorly conceived housing development; dumps for our rubbish; places into which we can hurl our shopping trollies or tannery waste or paint wash.

I think there’s only one thing to do. Bring back the Inspector of Nuisances. I am prepared to take on that responsibility. Vote 1 Mark MacLean: The People’s Nuisance.