EDITORIAL: Gasworks site needs new plan

THE sheer cost of remediating contaminated land often means the job is delayed or left undone.

Consider some of the more well-known examples in the Hunter, such as the former BHP Newcastle steelworks land and its associated Kooragang waste dump, the former Pasminco smelter at Boolaroo and various flooded old coal mines around the region.

When a corporation is answerable to shareholders, it’s easy to understand how expensive liabilities can be deferred, more or less ad infinitum. Under various models that have been employed or considered in the past, owners of contaminated land might make deals with governments that transfer the ultimate responsibility to taxpayers,  in return for  enticements,  or simply cease to exist, passing the problem to an administrator who may or may not have sufficient resources to cope.

Jemena, formerly AGL, is the owner of what was once Newcastle’s gasworks, an important parcel of land  beside Woodville Junction – still touted by many as the ideal location for a  transport interchange.

The old gasworks site is heavily contaminated by the usual carcinogens and heavy metals associated with the process of converting coal to town gas. Remediating the land will be very expensive and difficult, which explains why the job wasn’t done years ago.

But the task ought to be done, since it seems the contaminants have penetrated deep into the soil and are now migrating  through the water table into Styx Creek, Throsby Creek and the Hunter River.

Newcastle people might be excused if they are pessimistic about a good outcome. After all, the NSW government’s anti-pollution watchdogs have a disappointing record when it comes to contaminated sites.

It is tempting to suggest that the state government, perhaps operating through the Hunter Development Corporation, ought to simply acquire the land, shoulder the burden of the remediation and then benefit from the potential profits that should be available from the redevelopment of the combined gasworks and Woodville Junction site.

Even assuming the government sticks with Wickham as its first-stage heavy rail to light rail interchange, that doesn’t rule out later changes or enhancements that might include another rethink of Newcastle’s heavy rail, including the roles and functions of Hamilton and Broadmeadow stations. The gasworks site is flat, central and extremely accessible. On that basis, it should be capable of hosting a considerable population in high and medium-density housing, contributing substantially to the goal of boosting the population of Newcastle’s inner suburbs.

First, however, the land has to be decontaminated, without further delay.