A COCKTAIL of dangerous substances has been found in the soil of some properties above the old gasworks at Waratah, including cyanide, lead and known carcinogen benzo(a)pyrene
And at least one house has been shifting on its foundations, as an old gas holder underneath it swells and shrinks in periods of wet and dry weather respectively.
The Newcastle Herald can reveal that Newcastle council’s 11-month environmental investigation into the site is now complete, with a report based on the findings in the final stages of an “independent, comprehensive review”.
It is expected to be released in coming weeks.
It’s understood the area bounded by Turton, Georgetown and Ellis Roads – which takes in about 20 properties – has been divided into a pink zone and a blue zone depending on the level of risk.
While the council is yet to make a financial commitment towards remediation, chief executive Jeremy Bath said it had met with residents to provide sampling results and discuss “the next steps”.
“A key recommendation of the investigation was to undertake a Remediation Options Assessment for properties with elevated results,” Mr Bath said.
“In November 2017, Council met with those property owners individually to discuss possible remediation options and management measures that may be appropriate for their specific properties.”
In the meantime, those residents have been assured they can minimise risk by avoiding direct contact with shallow soil, which they have been told is the main exposure pathway to the toxic substances.
But that advice stands in contrast to events 212 kilometres away in Camden, NSW, where a nearly identical situation has unfolded.
Camden High School was built in 1956 beside a former gasworks and was later expanded on top of the site.
The school was razed earlier this year, but more than 320 former students and teachers have launched a class action against the Department of Education, claiming they have illnesses linked to toxins at the site.
Joe Bonura, a partner at Marsdens Law Group, is acting on behalf of the group. He said direct contact with soil and breathing in vapours were both considered avenues of exposure.
“We are still in the process of attaining expert evidence,” he said. “We have had a fairly large number of people that have made complaints about the smells.”
Professor Megh Mallavarapu leads the remediation program at the University of Newcastle’s Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment.
He said because the gasworks at Waratah was decommissioned in the 1920s, the airborne risk would have lessened over time.
“Most of the highly volatile compounds have already been lost to the atmosphere,” he said.
But he expressed concern about residents still living on top of or adjacent to the site.
“It is not advisable to live next to that,” he said.
More than 300 soil, vapour and groundwater samples were collected by an independent consultant as part of council’s investigation.
Cyanide, lead, chromium, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and benzo(a)pyrene were found above the screening criteria in the yard of Kim and Adam Lowe’s home on Turton Road.
Lead exposure can impair intellectual development in children, while benzo(a)pyrene has been classified as a group one carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
The couple raised their children at the property, who used to carve out race tracks for their cars in the dirt. Mr Lowe praised council’s handling of the problem so far.
“We feel they’ve been very up front and honest,” he said.
“Council have acknowledged the problem is there … and they’re providing potential remediation options.
“[But] the proof is going to be in the pudding of whether they deliver those remediation outcomes that have been requested. That is the crunch part for them.”
The Lowes’ situation is complicated by an abandoned gas holder, estimated at around 18 metres in length, that sits underneath their house and backyard.
It’s been blamed for cracks in their fences, a leaning side wall and brickwork pulling away at the base of the house.
Mr Lowe compared it to a large bowl, filled with dirt and clay.
“When it fills up with water … everything in the tank becomes soft. Then the structure dries out and hardens. That causes the structural damage we have now.
“You can repair the structural damage now, but in 20 years you’ll have more structural damage because the problem isn’t solved.”
Mr Lowe and his wife have been living at their property for over two decades and do not wish to move away. But any solution, they argued, had to solve the problem “once and for all”.
“We’d hate to think there’d be more deterioration in the house in years to come,” Mr Lowe said.
The Lowes unwittingly stumbled across the suburb’s toxic secret when they were installing a pool in 2002, and a crowbar vanished down a hole in their yard.
But it was only in June last year the family came to understand the hole was a gas holder belonging to the former Waratah gasworks, after a member of the public alerted the NSW Environment Protection Authority to its existence.
Newcastle Council has claimed it did not know about the gasworks, which closed in 1928, because any records from the now-defunct Waratah Municipal Council were destroyed.
But the identity of the person that alerted authorities to its existence has been the subject of great conjecture among residents.
“There’s still unanswered questions,” Mr Lowe said.
All clear outside former footprint
An investigation has given a clean bill of health to properties outside the footprint of the former gasworks at Waratah.
Elevated levels of contaminants were discovered in an area consistent with “where the former gasworks structure is understood to be,” council said in a statement.
Properties beyond that – including the Family Support Centre and Callaghan College – were found to be typical of background conditions within Waratah.
“Further investigation or remediation is not required ... as gasworks indicator substances were typically absent,” the statement said.
According to residents, 13 properties have been included in the ‘pink zone’, because of the risk from direct contact with elevated levels of contaminants in the shallow soil.
They have been asked to consider partial remediation – where soil is capped with pavers or concrete – or full remediation, where it is replaced with clean fill.
“Council is committed to working closely with affected property owners,” chief executive Jeremy Bath said.
As part of the investigation, samples were collected up to 500 metres from the gasworks site.
This was done in order to “characterise typical background substances that may be present from man-made sources other than the former gasworks”, the statement said.
“Council is liaising with the NSW EPA and Hunter New England Health, and will continue to seek their advice to ensure any health and environmental concerns are addressed.”