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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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.


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.


It’s all happening

19/06/2014

It doesn’t take much of a rain to fill the sinkholes and disused access areas in the gasworks. Within 24 hours of a downpour the roar and scrape and boom of frogs is almost deafening.

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The gasworks is a disgrace; a polluted and filthy slurry of toxins and poisons that leaches who knows how many kinds of carcinogens into the creek and the water table around Hamilton North. But it’s the only place within a couple of kilometre radius where you’ll hear six species of frog going at it hammer and tongs.

Which leaves me in something of a quandary. Its its proximity to the creek and the unused lands around the railway line have made it a haven for flora and fauna. There’s no scrub, shrubs or bushes in our fancified gardens and so there’s nowhere for the wrens and silvereye and honeyeaters. There’s no cover for mice and rabbits, frogs and toads, the ordinary critters that make up the base of the food pyramid for the raptors and mammal predators. So, dirty is how I like it.

But of course I don’t want it to be dirty forever, which is why I felt ambivalent when I heard the news of its impending clean up.

Jemena Pty Ltd, the energy retail company that inherited the site, has entered a voluntary agreement with the EPA to remediate the site to a point where it could be sold and some kind of commercial activity take place upon it. Quite what form this remediation will take is as yet unknown, hence the flurry of activity over there in recent weeks.

If you’d like to find out more, or have any comments, concerns or queries, Jemena is holding a community drop-in session at Hamilton Nroth Bowling Club on Tuesday, 24 June between 4 and 7 pm.

Watch this space for more.

In other news, the annual Vintage Tweed Ride is on again (here are some pictures from last year).

Just get yourself kitted out in your bestest olden-time clothes and cock your leg across your favouritest olden-time velocipede and meet at Islington Park, 10 am this Sunday. If you’re struggling to find an olden time bike then just head down the creek. There’s a variety of parts there on a daily basis.

IMG_6695Toot toot!

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