IT was the diesel “spray” that packed a punch.
The leak from a Raymond Terrace service station turned a family’s backyard into war zone, landed a man in hospital, damaged a car and destroyed a toddler’s beloved strawberry patch.
Now, Caltex is under pressure to explain why it appears emergency services were not notified for nearly five hours after the Kirbys’ yard was engulfed with diesel vapour on September 25.
The company has objected to the use of the term “spill” and said about seven litres of liquid “sprayed” onto the property. But Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW) said it was impossible to quantify the amount of product released, because of the weather conditions and that it was “dispersed across several square metres”.
Three generations of the Kirby family had gathered in their house on Brown Street - next to the Richardson Road Caltex - when they realised, in unison, that something was wrong.
"All at the same time, I said 'can anyone smell diesel?' and my daughter-in-law said 'can anyone smell turps?' and my grandchildren said 'can anyone smell something that stinks?'"," Margaret Kirby recalled.
The time, she says, was about 1.50pm. Ms Kirby and her husband, Craig, ventured outside and found a leaking tap from the neighbouring service station has sprayed litres of diesel “everywhere”: blowing from one end of their yard to the other, across the roof of their patio and onto their car.
“It was quite wet then, so I don’t know how long it had been going on,” Ms Kirby said.
The family shut themselves in the house with the fans on. But within about 10 minutes of being exposed to the fumes, Mr Kirby was struggling to breathe.
“This is how quickly it happened … I was making him a sandwich and when the ambulance arrived, he still had half of the sandwich left,” Ms Kirby said.
Mr Kirby, who has a history of heart and respiratory problems, was admitted to Maitland Hospital for two days. Doctors suggested he may have a case of pneumonia or the flu, but swabs came back negative, according to the couple.
He ended up being diagnosed with a respiratory tract infection, but the Kirbys are convinced his illness was linked to his exposure to the toxic fumes.
“You don’t develop a chest infection in ten minutes,” Ms Kirby said.
A World Health Organisation report said breathing diesel into the lungs could cause pneumonitis, with the symptoms including choking, coughing, wheezing, breathlessness and fever.
Maitland Hospital’s Director of Medical Servies, Professor Pooshan Navathe, said the hospital took note of his exposure to the fumes but could not prove a link to the incident.
“Identifying a causal link between breathing difficulties and exposures requires specialised testing, which is not routinely done in an acute setting, as in this case,” he said.
According to the NSW EPA, a business must inform emergency services immediately “in the event of an incident that causes or threatens harm to the environment.”
It remains a mystery why FRNSW were not notified until 6.45pm on the night of the spray, around five hours after it was discovered by the Kirbys. They claim to have rung Caltex “straight away”.
A Caltex spokesperson insisted its protocols were put into action “immediately”, which included notifying emergency services, Safe Work NSW, the EPA and Port Stephens Council.
However, she did not respond when pressed on exactly what time FRNSW was contacted.
When the fire brigade arrived, the family was evacuated. HAZMAT and the Lower Hunter duty commander were also called to the scene.
“Firefighters from Raymond Terrace Fire Station established an exclusion zone on the property and liaised with the owner,” a FRNSW spokesperson said.
“FRNSW advised the occupants to seek alternative accommodation for the evening as a precaution, until the spill could be further assessed and remediated.”
That remediation work included removing half of the turf in the Kirbys’ yard. Their plants, roses and six vegetable gardens were also dug up, bagged and thrown away.
That was devastating to Mr Kirby, who has found solace in his garden after his heart problems left him unable to work.
“It’s basically all I do, the grandkids come over and we work in the garden,” he said. Before its destruction, the garden boasted potatoes, capsicum, lettuce, squash, brussel sprouts, radishes, cucumbers and corn.
“They were put in so at Christmas we’d have veggies and wouldn’t have to worry about going to the supermarket,” Mr Kirby said.
Another casualty of the spray was a strawberry patch belonging to the Kirbys’ three-year-old granddaughter, Felicity.
“She’s had the strawberry patch since she was 17 months old,” Ms Kirby said.
“She counts the strawberries and there were six on the Sunday. When she came over on Tuesday, they were full of diesel. I tried to explain it to her and it broke my heart to look at her face.”
Caltex have paid for the remediation works in the Kirbys’ yard but said it would be “inappropriate” to comment when asked if they accepted liability for Mr Kirby’s medical costs.
“Caltex are in contact with our neighbours at the Brown Street site and a team have been engaged to investigate what happened,” she said.
“Remediation is a part of our response to an incident such as this and is underway, with soil testing and cleaning.
“When we have a better understanding of what occurred and how it can be prevented in the future we will ensure that we use that learning across our network.”
The Kirbys have lived at their home for 28 years, well before the service station arrived in 2007. They praised the response of the fire brigade and Port Stephens Council to the incident.
A council spokeswoman said it had issued a clean-up notice to Caltex and the initial clean up was now complete.
“We're continuing to work with Caltex and the relevant authorities to have the matter resolved, or take any compliance action, if required,” she said.