Prime Minister Scott Morrison has urged the private sector to build a 1000 megawatt gas-fired power station in the Hunter. Otherwise, said Mr Morrison, the government's Snowy Hydro would undertake the investment.
Labor MPs Joel Fitzgibbon and Meryl Swanson welcomed the gas burner as good for energy security and good for jobs. But our local parliamentarians are all in with coal, no? Clearly their views need understanding and analysis. I've some close reading to do. I'll let you know how I get on.
As a geographer, however, the announcement gave me a good excuse for some springtime fieldwork.
The likely site for the power plant is the old aluminium smelter at Loxford, north of Kurri Kurri.
Intriguingly, as revealed earlier this year by the Newcastle Herald (25/1), the development rights for the smelter site and its surrounding buffer lands are held by a partnership of prominent developers, Jeff McCloy and John Stevens.
Both men described the opportunity as the biggest of their careers.
I'm not surprised. Every aspect of the proposed redevelopment is grand in scale. The outcome will profoundly affect a highly significant tract of the lower Hunter. A project of this magnitude needs scrutiny, and the Prime Minister has done a service in drawing attention to it.
Preparation for my fieldwork came from the environmental impact statement for the remediation and redevelopment of the site prepared by the operators of the smelter, Norway's Hydro Aluminium. The document is accessible from the NSW government's planning portal. The state government is the approval authority given the project's significance.
I drove to the 2000-hectare site last week. I approached the site from the south, from Kurri Kurri.
Gone already from the view as you top Lang Street are the emission stacks that signalled the troubled environmental history of the smelter. Instead the redevelopment site presents as a vast expanse of floodplain and woodland, imaginable as pristine.
But the short drive to Loxford carries signs of the momentous industrial investments that have been layered across this terrain.
The old Maitland railway line hauled coal from 29 separate pits. Re-purposed factories once housed 700 clothing workers. High voltage power lines still link to the upper Hunter's thermal coal generators, once the lifeline for the smelter.
It opened in 1969. Alcan came to Loxford because it was a large site with no competing uses. To the north stunted iron barks and scrubby paper barks told prospective farmers to look elsewhere. To the east, the land drops quickly into swamp, the deep water table prohibiting the search for coal.
A project of this magnitude needs scrutiny, and the Prime Minister has done a service in drawing attention to it.
These swamps are Swamp Creek's stopovers as it winds from Loxford to Testers Hollow, around Gillieston Heights and into Wallis Creek. The wetlands are low and flat, less than 10 metres above sea level. 6000 years ago brackish sea water lapped right across this landscape.
Five decades on from Alcan and another investment round is underway. The industrial clean-up is visually uninteresting, the clunking of a single large digger into concrete, the re-making of an earth mound into a containment cell for permanent onsite storage of toxic materials, and two blokes mowing lawns for no apparent reason. The 600 smelter jobs are long gone.
I leave Loxford on the M15 Motorway, screened from the permanent water of Swamp Creek, the wetlands and a forest of silky oak and apple box. I exit at Heddon Greta, once known for its pub, golf course and drive-in, now lesser attractions to a giant Puma service station, the gasoline and fast food fuel stop for car-pooling miners, their surplus SUVs willy-nilly by the road.
Heddon Greta and Cliftleigh are the eastern boundaries of the redevelopment site. Whereas the western side of the swamps will be subdivided for industrial lands, this side will be the next carve-up of the lower Hunter's rural landscapes, 2000 more lots, a half-billion-dollar revenue stream for the developers in residential land sales alone.
At the back of Gillieston Heights I find a vantage to ponder the Swamp Creek panorama, freed from stencilled driveways and eave-to-eave housing. I see the legacy of the smelter: ironically, the delivery of a rare landscape in pretty good nick. I wonder what the new custodians will deliver?
Phillip O'Neill is professor of economic geography at Western Sydney University
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