Past/Lives Flashback #1: Union Carbide – Rhodes, NSW

Original article: Timbrol Chemicals/Union Carbide/Residential – Rhodes, NSW

UNION_CARBIDE_AD_S

Yes, the time has finally come. The most popular entry on Past/Lives over the last year (and a bit, by this point) by far was the tragic tale of Rhodes and that most toxic tenant, Union Carbide. Rhodes’ decimation at the hands of industrial abuse throughout the 20th century and subsequent resurrection as a residential paradise in the 21st is a long story, and one with repercussions for the whole of Sydney even today. Grab a coffee (although Rhodes residents, maybe don’t use tap water) and get comfortable…we’ll be going back over the whole thing.

THEN

Granny would be proud. Rhodes House, 1875. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

Granny would be proud. Rhodes House, 1875. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

Rhodes Hall, near Leeds, was about as far from the eastern shore of the picturesque Homebush Bay as Thomas Walker could imagine. A commissary, Walker had arrived at Port Jackson in 1818, and the following year bought an allotment of land from Frederick Meredith, another early settler. Walker built a house on his bank of the Parramatta River, naming it Rhodes after his grandmother’s estate back in the motherland because even hardened and worldly mercenaries still have soft spots for their grannies. So soft, in fact, that in 1832, Walker moved to Tasmania where he built another estate…also named Rhodes. She must have spoiled that kid rotten.

Wish you were here. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

Wish you were here. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

The Walker family relinquished their control over the Rhodes estate in 1919, when they sold up to the John Darling Flour Mill. By this point, Rhodes was no stranger to industry. Eight years earlier, G & C Hoskins had cleared much of the area’s forests to erect a cast iron foundry, and once this had happened, everyone got on board. There was little resistance to this kind of heavy industrialisation, especially in a suburb like Rhodes, which was easily accessible by rail and water.

Kind of looks like a guy with a ponytail, doesn't it? Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

Kind of looks like the silhouette of a guy with a ponytail, doesn’t it? Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

At this point in time, Rhodes and the neighbouring Homebush were the outer limits, truly the Western Suburbs, with only Parramatta and the Blue Mountains more forbidding. Sydneysiders were keen to get the blossoming industrial sector as far away from their own backyards as possible (understandably), and Rhodes, bordered by the new abattoir and the Parramatta River, was out of sight, out of mind.

The root of our evil. Timbrol Chemicals, 1934. Image courtesy Chemlink.

The root of our evil. Timbrol Chemicals, 1934. Image courtesy Chemlink.

Flour mills and cast iron foundries weren’t exactly environmentally friendly (a phrase not yet in use in 1928), but the true damage to Rhodes didn’t begin until the arrival of Timbrol Ltd in 1928. Timbrol had been established in 1925 by three Sydney University researchers keen to manufacture their own brand of timber preservative, so at least it was all for a good cause.

Rhodes, 1930. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

Rhodes, 1930. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

In 1933, Timbrol had a breakthrough! It was able to produce the first Australian made xanthates, which is used in the mining sector for extracting particular kinds of ores. With the advent of the Second World War, xanthate exports boomed, and expansion of the Timbrol site was required. But where to go? Sandwiched between the train line and the foreshore, and with John Darling to the north and CSR (another booming wartime chemical company) to the south, Timbrol was apparently out of options.

Rhodes, 1942. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

1942. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

Just joking. Of course there was an option – the only option: reclaim land from Homebush Bay by filling in the river with contaminated by-products and building over it. Out of sight, out of mind.

Rhodes, 1949. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

1949. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

The post-war housing boom brought about various new challenges in the domestic domain, most of which could be easily solved with chemicals. Thus, demand for chlorine, herbicides and insecticides, particularly DDT, skyrocketed, and Timbrol was right there to capitalise. And by right there, I mean jutting out over Homebush Bay on new, hastily constructed ground.

Rhodes, 1951. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

1951. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

Spurring the chemical company’s efforts on even further were their competitors CSR, ICI and Monsanto, most of whom were a stone’s throw away from the Timbrol site. The close proximity of these companies meant that the output of potentially dangerous by-product seemed minimised in the eyes of the era’s governments; it was better for all the companies to be dumping together rather than dumping apart at wider intervals. This also meant that the neighbouring sites could ‘borrow’ Timbrol’s approach to expansion – good news for Homebush Bay.

Rhodes, 1956. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

1956. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

Timbrol’s success had attracted another element: the American chemical giant Union Carbide, which saw Timbrol as a great place to start an Australian subsidiary. Union Carbide dated back to 1898, and had built its wealth through aluminium production and its zinc chloride battery arm – both of which seem like the perfect thing to manufacture on the bank of a serene body of water.

At this point I’d like to pose a question: when did it ever seem like a good idea to produce chemicals like herbicides, zinc chloride and xanthates beside a healthy bay full of wildlife? Who signed off on this? How were the guys in charge of these companies able to look at this beautiful place and think “Hmm, needs more poison.”? I’m aware that without these chemicals we wouldn’t be able to live the way we do today, but some of these decisions were bordering on just straight up evil.

An honest day's work. Union Carbide HQ, Rhodes, 1970. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

An honest day’s work. Union Carbide HQ, Rhodes, 1970. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

The arrival of Union Carbide frightened Timbrol’s competitors. The might of the American parent company meant near-unlimited resources, so local campaigns were stepped up.

1961. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

1961. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

CSR and even old John Darling began to encroach upon the bay, re-sculpting the landscape as they saw fit.

Axis. Allied Feeds, ca 1970. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

Axis. Allied Feeds, ca 1970. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

The initial success of Union Carbide Australia didn’t go unnoticed overseas, either. Associated British Foods bought John Darling’s Flour Mill for its Australian subsidiary Allied Mills in 1960, rebranding it Allied Feeds. Most of the product manufactured at the Allied Feeds site would end up in the stomachs of livestock sent to Homebush Abattoir, where said stomachs would then be carved up to be fed back to the populace. And for that, you need MORE ROOM.

1965. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

1965. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

But back to Union Carbide. The early 1960s weren’t kind to UC. Competitors and waning demand had teamed up to diminish the brand, but that didn’t stop the near endless flow of poisons into the bay. By now, nearly all of Union Carbide’s output produced an unfortunate and extremely unpleasant by-product: dioxins. Highly toxic and capable of, at the very least, causing cancer and damaging reproductive and immune systems, dioxins are usually exposed to humans via food particularly meat and fish. What a great idea then to produce extremely unsafe levels of dioxins right beside a manufacturer of animal feed. What a great idea to produce that animal feed on top of land infused with dioxins. What a great idea to expel those unwanted dioxins into Homebush Bay, a waterway directly linked to Sydney Harbour and full of fish.

Let’s take a moment to hear from the World Health Organisation about dioxins:

Short-term exposure of humans to high levels of dioxins may result in skin lesions, such as chloracne and patchy darkening of the skin, and altered liver function. Long-term exposure is linked to impairment of the immune system, the developing nervous system, the endocrine system and reproductive functions. Chronic exposure of animals to dioxins has resulted in several types of cancer. Due to the omnipresence of dioxins, all people have background exposure and a certain level of dioxins in the body, leading to the so-called body burden. Current normal background exposure is not expected to affect human health on average. However, due to the high toxic potential of this class of compounds, efforts need to be undertaken to reduce current background exposure.

So…don’t do what Union Carbide did next, then?

1970. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

1970. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

The fortunes of Union Carbide Australia were reversed by the Vietnam War. See, Vietnam has a lot of jungles, and those pesky Vietcong kept hiding in those jungles, so what better way to flush them out than by removing their hiding spot? Union Carbide was contracted by the US military to produce Agent Orange, a dioxide-heavy defoliant. Even when it was discovered that Agent Orange’s components contained a particularly toxic strain of dioxin, it continued to be sprayed indiscriminately throughout the war, during which dioxins continued to be dumped into Homebush Bay.

In the midst of all this, Union Carbide research scientist Douglas Lyons Ford invented Glad Wrap at the Rhodes plant. It was introduced to the Australian market in 1966, the first such product in the country. Well, that kind of balances out that other thing, doesn’t it?

1972. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

It’s easy to spot the pollution. 1972. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

By the 70s, environmental action against companies like these was stepping up, and the population of Sydney had exploded westward. Rhodes’ train line was now a sharp divider between the industrial zone and a booming residential sector.

A day on the water, 1970. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

A day on the water, 1970. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

Further north and across the river, Meadowbank and Ryde were both beginning to cast aside their industrial legacies and welcoming more and more families, while to the south, the Homebush Abattoir was winding down operations. Forward-thinking residential developers were eyeing these areas with great interest, and keeping government wheels greased to ensure their availability in the future. In typical lightning fast Sydney reaction time, this movement was accommodated in the mid-80s by the construction of Homebush Bay Drive, a highway that bypassed the nearby suburb of Concord and tracked through Rhodes’ industrial zone. Out of sight, out of mind.

1985. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

Is it still water? 1985. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

By the early 1980s, Rhodes was known throughout the land for its toxicity and odour above all else.

Poking fun at the cripple, 1946. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

Poking fun at the cripple, 1946. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

Its rich legacy of achievements in the field of chemistry long forgotten, Union Carbide was looking increasingly sick and tired; a relic of another age. But one major incident in 1984 made it look downright villainous.

vintage_union_carbide_ad

In December of that year, an explosion at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India exposed half a million people to toxic gases, killing thousands. PR disaster for UC, and the final straw for the parent company. Most of its international subsidiaries were wound up in the years following Bhopal, including the Rhodes plant, which ceased operations in 1985. Allowed to leave without any kind of cleanup effort, Union Carbide left behind a toxic legacy that remains detrimental to Sydney today.

1995. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

Without a trace? 1995. Image courtesy City of Canada Bay.

The NSW Government and the Australian Olympic Committee had hoped to transform Rhodes into an Olympic athlete village by the 2000 Sydney games, but they had underestimated just how poisoned the land was.

Resuming the Union Carbide site, 1993. Image courtesy Rhodes Remediation.

Resuming the Union Carbide site, 1993. Image courtesy Rhodes Remediation.

Government remediation efforts tried in vain between 1988 and 1993 to heal the land, but it wasn’t until 2005, long after the end of the Olympics, that private enterprise intervene with the necessary money and technology to properly clean the land. Why this sudden burst of effective effort so long after the fact?

NOW

A fitting name.

Aptly named apts.

Today, if you turn off Homebush Bay Drive at the IKEA, you’ll descend into valleys of glass and steel. Rhodes’ rebirth as a gauntlet of residential and commercial towers, a process which began in 2005, is nearly complete. Sensing an opportunity to make money, Mirvac and other developers pounced on the toxic wasteland at the end of the 90s, saving it from a future of causing people to hold their breath as they drove past.

The remediation process, 2006. Image courtesy Rhodes Remediation.

Scrub harder! The remediation process, 2006. Image courtesy Rhodes Remediation.

With a steady flow of money and the promise of even more at the end of the remediation rainbow, Thiess and the NSW Government got to work turning the poisonous dirt into the foundations of the futuristic castles that line the foreshore today.

IMG_0483

I think I can see the duck.

But while the reclaimed land has been mostly made harmless, the bay has not. In fact, the NSW Department of Health has prohibited fishing west of Sydney Harbour Bridge due to an abundance of dioxins. And swimming? Forget it.

Don't jump! You have your whole life ahead of you.

Don’t jump! You have your whole life ahead of you.

The remediation efforts have been effective in more ways than one. I don’t think that Mirvac and friends really cared about anything other than making the land safe enough to pass re-zoning as residential, but despite this, wetland wildlife has begun to return to the bay. Studies on the sea life are ongoing with hopes that one day the bay will once again be safe, but I don’t think we’ll see it in our lifetime. To my infant readers: this means you too.

IMG_0473

Canary yellow?

To the developers’ credit, the project seems to have largely been a great success. There’s the popular shopping centre, complete with cinema and IKEA (a huge coup in its day, since superseded by Tempe), and Liberty Grove to the east. Care has been taken to eradicate most traces of the industrial nightmare of the past. The new units look good enough to stop you from wondering why the grass is always yellow, and they’re certainly filling up fast. And yet…

The bad seed.

The bad seed.

If you plant a seed in bad soil, it won’t grow very well. Case in point: this is the unit tower being constructed directly upon the former Union Carbide site. Every other tower in Rhodes is either completed or is only weeks away, but not Union Carbide. In fact, the entire site seems to have been plagued with construction delays or other issues. Sure, this stage of the Rhodes project started later than the others, but that too is down to the sheer toxicity of the Union Carbide land.

IMG_0499

That dirt looks like a job for your sales and marketing guys.

At the rear, things look even worse. Piles of dirt sit around, uglifying the scenery. Cranes hover above the unfinished structure like buzzards.

A Timbrol shoreline.

Another Timbrol shoreline.

On the corner of Shoreline and Timbrol, construction equipment is a mainstay. It’s as if they just can’t make this one happen, despite their money and intentions.

IMG_0506

Solid foundation.

Tower number two hasn’t even started yet, acting as a base of operations for the workers completing tower number one. In 1997, Greenpeace discovered 36 sealed drums of toxic waste underneath the Union Carbide site, so there’s no telling what these guys are digging up as they go. Does your underground carpark glow in the dark?

No pets allowed, except those ones.

No pets allowed, though.

Down at the Union Carbide foreshore, an even eerier sight: completed units, completely empty.

Your nearest neighbours are miles away.

Your nearest neighbours are miles away.

These seem to be ready to go, but either due to environmental concerns or the noise of construction, residents aren’t allowed to move in yet. I’d be leaning toward the former reason, seeing as plenty of other people here have to put up with the noise.

2013. Image courtesy Google Maps.

2013. Image courtesy Google Earth.

The Rhodes experiment has proven to be an environmental triumph, arguably even greater than Sydney Olympic Park, but it’s an even greater financial triumph. The corporations behind the remediation weren’t doing this for the sake of the environment or because they felt like doing something nice, they were doing it for the exact same reason the land was stained in the first place. Rhodes may have gotten the second chance Bhopal never did, but they’re equally valid testaments to that reason.

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18 responses

  1. Great story……maybe you could do one on Monsanto at Balmain….which was right next door to the High School…

  2. This is utterly hilarious. Love the blog.
    Do your think you could do something on Newington, the old athlete’s village? The waterways sometimes smell even worse than Rhodes’. Hill Road is disgusting.

    1. You’re not wrong there.

  3. Really enjoyed your blog, I used to live in Marquet and Mary Street and recently revisited the area after 20 years – I could not believe how much the area has changed. I remember when the shops consisted of a paper shop, butchers, post office and milk bar – a far cry from what is there now. Sorry to see the closure of Rhodes Primary – it was a great little school.

  4. Very nice read.

    Are there any traces or clues left behind of what there used to be in Rhodes ? The discovery of the barrels would have been quite interesting.

    I’ve been there many times and a lot of my friends live there and have always wondered why there are large warning signs stating to stay away from the water that is just meters away from a playground..

    Agree with one of the replies above.. I technically live on Hill Road and the section before the entry to Newington coming from the south side is horrendous.. I never knew why though.

  5. It was great to read this!!! I hope you don’t mind me telling you my story.

    I was born in March 1965 and lived my first 3 years on Mary St, Rhodes, opposite Union Carbide. As a toddler I loved going into the neighbours strawberry patch and eating as much as I could. Mum tried to grow tomatoes once which turned out to be toxic! I also remember our house covered in black ash due to a fire at Union Carbide.

    When I was 22 doctors found a lump in my neck the size of a pea. With in a week it grew to the size of a large brazil nut hence I was put straight in hospital and had my thyroid removed. Pathology came back and I had Papillary Carcinoma – THYROID CANCER.

    I went into RNSH isolation room and was given a large dose of radio-iodine. Some days later I had scans to check the uptake of the radiation. There was no sign of the radio-iodine in my system. Doctors were perplexed!

    Over the following years I was given more radio-iodine to do scans but always had the same result…no uptake! I am immune to the radiation treatments due to a past exposures. Which I now know is from Union Carbide.

    The cancer grew back in the thyroid tissue, so far, another three times and had to be removed by surgery.

    Over the past few years my back was getting progressively painful. Last year I had a spinal fusion L4 – L5. The problem they have found with my back is I have sever osteo-arthritus. The neurosurgeon described my back as bad as a 85 – 90 year old obese woman. He said I’m a repeat customer and predicted 12 months…I’m just past that now.

    In March this year I had a mammogram and no surprise 6 weeks later in having an operation to remove suspicious cells. Thank god these cells were bad but hadn’t turned in to cancer yet. I have to be monitored yearly now.

    I have 3 beautiful, healthy teenagers! So life has been good to me.

    But Union Carbide has caused me a lot of pain and taken my health.

    Thank you for reading my story.

    Alison

  6. Awesome story. I cycle past there all the time and have watched all these changes over the years.

  7. I grew up in Homebush and remember going for drives with dad along Benelong Rd in the 80’s. There were hundreds of 55 gallon drums with green stuff in the mangroves which is now a “bird sanctuary” (see Godzilla Returns)

  8. This is a wonderful post. I am currently editing a “My map” in google, pinning areas which were formally industrial with photos and EPA reports in the Canada Bay area. If you google “Putney History” there’s a great ebook/pdf with photos of AGL and what used to be in the Canada Bay area. Will keep you posted and keep checking on here.

  9. My husband worked building the units at Rhodes in 2011 he was diaganosed with primary plasma cell leukemia which is caused by exposure to chemicals has anyone else got a similar story

  10. I worked directly across the bay in the 70/80’s at DeHavilland Marine. I have created a Facebook page and have lodged much info and pics of their large craft built there. I still remember the prawn trawlers netting prawns directly in front of the site deispite bans being in place at the time. If anyone wants a look at the facebook info the page is called = Dehavilland Marine and the link is…..
    https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003650448812
    Regards
    David Woods

    1. It appears the Dehavilland Marine link has changed but Facebook users and marine boat building history buffs can still access it as it is still alive and well. It can simply & quickly be accessed under the facebook name – dehavilland marine (dehavilland as one word). While originally dedicated to the Homebush Bay boat building it has by much demand been opened to all things Dehavilland Marine. Viewers more interested in the large craft operations at Homebush Bay should start at the base pages of the group where there is a mind field of pics, info and tales of this once proud Sydney based boat building company.

  11. Fascinating! I grew up in Eastwood in the 1970s and we would go through Rhodes on the train into town. The stench was unspeakable. People would put the windows up in the old red rattlers before we neared the station in anticipation of the smell. The area was on the wane by then I expect which is perhaps why so few workers would get on/off if the train stopped there – but those that did board there always smelt ‘funny’ (OK, they stank). I remember we all watched the Homebush Bay re-development and later the Olympics site with some horror. My parents made dark comments about Union Carbide and what they’d likely find there – my dad used to work for a large resources company in the 70s and it was a much smaller world back then. Aside from the unpleasant parts, I am all nostalgic now.

  12. Stumbling across your blog has highlighted numerous memories. One of your first responders, mentions Monsanto’s being sandwiched next to Balmain High School. In the mid 80’s, it seemed ( from the POV of a teen with a left wing family ) the company sensed there was some public rumblings and made huge donations to the school , where suddenly a bevy of new computers and sporting equipment was delivered with stealth. Not many corporations or “establishments” felt it necessary to support one of the most undesired and unruly schools of the day. Obviously Monsanto has the community spirit mantra built into their mission statement, or not. Foul smells, dead fish and extremely anxious teachers when a fire alarm was sounded in the factory next door. Balmain and the harbour in general seems to have suffered a great battering from the industrialist era. My greatest sympathy goes out to all those who have mentioned serious illness in preceding replies. There have been numerous friends and family of Inner West harbour side people who have left us, due to mysterious cancers surfacing. Your piece about Rhodes and its underground/water secrets is indeed fascinating and in effect an ode. Thank you .

  13. My father worked at Union carbide rodes
    He died a sl I w and horrible death over ten years my sister and my self bith h ave h ad on going problems 3 okder siblins don’t have these troubles every one that i know who worked there died young if a lot of unexpected medical problems
    Am allso aware of what is buried deep under ground and wou l d never live or work there

    1. Hi Bruce… I’d just discovered this blog and only a few hours ago discovered what had been manufactured at Union Carbide in Rhodes. My father worked there too. He died at 62, though I’m unaware of anything other than a heart attack. There’s a few weird illnesses in my family, but the biggest revelation was discovering they manufactured Agent Orange for the US military, which meant it was used in Vietnam. Crikey, that just flawed me.

  14. Well it’s a while since this story was posted but thanks for the great read. We lived in Walker street in the 1970s and I remember well the many stenchy days. Sometimes you’d also get the lovely whiff of the abattoires drifting through. On the plus side was the smell of Arnotts biscuits being baked at North Strathfield as you went on the train towards the city although it doesn’t really make up for what we were living in. An earlier poster mentioned just the few shops (which were near the station). I think there was also Mrs Boon’s shop which was kind of a deli / grocer.

  15. My father worked for Timbrols then Union Carbide from about 1940 until he retired at age 65 in 1969. He died in 1971. My mother washed his overalls and they smelt awful. Then they suppled them in the last few years. He caught the train from Thornleigh to Rhodes. He was glad to have a job after the depression I think.

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