Past/Lives Flashback #1: Union Carbide – Rhodes, NSW
Original article: Timbrol Chemicals/Union Carbide/Residential – Rhodes, NSW
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
CSR and even old John Darling began to encroach upon the bay, re-sculpting the landscape as they saw fit.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
By the early 1980s, Rhodes was known throughout the land for its toxicity and odour above all else.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
At the rear, things look even worse. Piles of dirt sit around, uglifying the scenery. Cranes hover above the unfinished structure like buzzards.
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.
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?
Down at the Union Carbide foreshore, an even eerier sight: completed units, completely empty.
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.
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.
Past/Lives Flashback #8: Sydney Olympic Park – Homebush, NSW
Original article: NSW State Abattoirs/Sydney Olympic Park – Homebush, NSW
It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since I last visited this place. The blood-soaked history of Sydney Olympic Park is perhaps the most heavily researched article on Past/Lives, yet all that knowledge is quick to fall away when you’re actually standing on site, inhabiting the space where it all went down. The post-Easter Show cleanup only serves to strip back the gaudy decorations designed to distract from the past, leaving today’s visitors with one of two visions: the glorious Olympics, or the violent abattoirs.
Apart from the hubbub surrounding the Easter Show, change visits the Olympic zone about as often as I do (read: not much). The stadium seems to have settled on ANZ as its name for the time being, just as the arena’s heart still belongs to Allphones. During my refresher course on the ins and outs of the Olympic era of the site’s history, I laughed when I learned the arena’s actual name is the ‘Sydney Super Dome’. For the first time ever, Allphones sounds comparatively low-key.
So since change is such a stranger here, it’s going to be more beneficial to take a look at some of the landmarks around the Olympic site that betray its brutal past. We didn’t touch on too many last time, with the Abattoir Heritage Precinct being the natural focus. First up is Olympic Park station, the last stop of the train line which delivers thousands of Easter Show-goers to the park each year…
…just as it delivered hundreds of thousands of animals to their deaths each year for decades, some as recently as 25 years ago. Granted, it isn’t the exact same station (although if it was, abattoir workers would have enjoyed the most stylish station in Sydney), but its location is approximate to the original. A complete train line (with stations opening from 1915) served the abattoir and the nearby brickworks, with country trains deviating from the existing rail network at Lidcombe and Flemington to deposit country animals to the abattoir. Employees could catch their own trains from a small platform at the end of Pippita Street, Lidcombe.
As the abattoir declined, the need for employees did so as well, and in 1984 the abattoir line was closed, with the facility itself closing in 1988. The entire Homebush Salesyard Loop, on which the Olympic Park line is based, was closed in 1991. In 1996, the Pippita Street station became the last of the abattoir stations to be demolished, and interestingly, the street itself was absorbed into the huge Dairy Farmers site nearby (now, why do you think that’s there?). The brand-spanking-new Olympic Park loop line opened in 1998, with most of the Homebush Salesyard Loop repurposed to be a part of it.
Now, since that was a little…dry, let’s get wet.
The Sydney Olympic Park Aquatic Centre was the first part of Olympic Park to be constructed following the closure of the abattoir, unless you count Bicentennial Park, which opened in 1988. The Aquatic Centre opened in 1994, with the rest of the park completed by 1996. As such, the Aquatic Centre is the ‘middle child’ of the Olympic Park, with a design sensibility halfway between Bicentennial Park and the stadiums that followed. It’s a strange beast, and one made even stranger by my near-absolute certainty that when it first opened, its entrance was in fact this:
Sometime in 1995, I attended a birthday party at the exciting new Aquatic Centre, which was rumoured on the playground to have a whirlpool and slides. I don’t remember any slides, but I do have a distinct memory of our posse leaving behind a rubber WWF wrestler toy, tossed high up in those bushes on the left in a fit of excitement…while we were hanging around the entrance. Does the Iron Sheik still reside in those bushes today, subsisting on a diet of ants, rainwater and the occasional small bird? Nearly 20 years later, I still wasn’t game enough to climb up and find out. But I did go in for a closer look…
The appearance of those bolt marks, where the original entry sign was probably attached, seems to validate my memory of this being the main entrance. The doors underneath now serve as an emergency exit. If anyone can shed some light on this mystery, drop a line in the comments below. My theory is that when the Aquatic Centre opened, the entrance was here because it faced away from the abattoir site (and at the time, a huge construction site), but when the rest of the park was completed, the entrance was moved around to the opposite end of the facility, a spot which pretty much faces the Abattoir Heritage Precinct (and everything else, in keeping with the Olympic spirit of inclusion and togetherness). Today’s entrance looks a lot more ‘Olympic’ anyway, so it was probably a change for the best. Still…
Our last stop is just down the road from the Aquatic Centre. Back in the 70s and 80s, Swire (then Woodmasons Cold Storage) would have been one of the places to store the freshly processed animal carcasses on ice before being shipped to the nearby butcheries and markets. For a cold storage facility (and for Dairy Farmers), this was the perfect location…when the abattoir was there. How it’s still able to do business is a stone cold mystery, but I guess that’s why they’re no longer Woodmasons.
See you next time, when we’ll attempt to go for a drive…
NSW State Brickworks/Brickpit Ring Walk – Homebush, NSW
In a time when building a house meant plenty of brick, mortar and asbestos as opposed to 100% pure cladding, a housing boom meant it was time to get digging. The State Brickworks at Homebush was established by the NSW Government in 1911 to (publicly) provide for the demand for public housing and (privately) to shatter the stranglehold private owners had on the brickmaking industry, because no one makes money without the NSW Government getting a piece of the action. This greedy plan backfired at the onset of the Great Depression, when demand plummeted and the site started operating at a major loss. Ironically, it was sold to a private firm in 1936, and closed soon after.
Of course, the history of bricks in Sydney reaches back much further than Homebush. Brickfield Hill (near Haymarket) owes its name to its brickmaking past, and the St Peters brickyards are still in plain view – I just haven’t been there yet. The Homebush site was adjacent to the State Abattoirs, presumably to maintain the ambience, but more likely because the ground was rich in necessary brick ingredients. The Homebush Brickworks had also served to replace the troublesome State-run sand lime brickmaking operation at Botany, which had in 1914 fallen victim to a labourer strike, and never recovered.
After World War II, during which the site had been used as an ammunitions depot by the Navy, the NSW Government sensed an opportunity to make money, and reopened the Brickpit just in time for the second housing boom. If the first boom was a Newcastle, this one was somewhere between a San Francisco and an Indonesia. Chances are that at some point during your life in Sydney, you’ve stayed in a house built with bricks from Homebush. The site even had its own train station for workers to use, which opened in 1939.
It should be mentioned that during the 60s, 70s and 80s, the Brickworks was known by a different name to young hoons and petrolheads looking to blow off some steam on a Friday or Saturday night. ‘Brickies’ was a hot destination for drag racers setting off from the Big Chiefs (Beefy’s) burger joint on Parramatta Road, tearing off up Underwood Road in their Monaros towards Brickies Hill. This circuit can be seen in the 1977 film FJ Holden, which will be a major part of this blog sooner than later. The onset of development put a stop to this, but a subtle, if bizarre, homage to that era has been paid through the naming of certain streets around Hill Road, once the drag strip finish line: Nuvolari Place, named for Italian racing legend Tazio Nuvolari, and Monza Drive, after the endurance race of the same name. Sydney also hosted its first V8 Supercar event at the Olympic Park in 2009, echoing the days of weekend supercar stardom in less developed decades. Residents could still nostalgically enjoy extreme noise pollution and rowdy behaviour, but at least this time it was corporately sponsored.
From an industrial standpoint, they might as well have been making gold bricks at the ‘works for the next three decades…and then the 80s happened. The boom died down, the money dried up, and the Brickworks, which had for the most part of the 20th century poisoned the surrounding land and Homebush Bay, was clumped in the same basket as the increasingly irrelevant State Abattoirs and the volatile Rhodes industrial area – it had to go, but before it did, the crew of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (or perhaps The Conqueror 2, just give it a few years) chose the toxic site as a filming location. In 1988, the Brickworks were closed for good. Like the rest of the State-owned Homebush industrial zone, it was included in plans to reshape the area into the Sydney Olympic Stadium in 1992. The Brickpit was to become the tennis centre.
And so it would have gone, had not a funny, completely unexpected thing happened. The green and golden bell frog was nearing extinction by 1992. Once abundant in Sydney, numbers had fallen so low that a special breeding program was established at Taronga Zoo in the hope that the frog could be saved. As preliminary work was being done, 300 of the small frogs were discovered living in the quarry. Several times since, colonies of the undeniably appealing frog have turned up at proposed development sites, halting work, ruining plans, and causing PR-illiterate development bigwigs to shit a…well, you know. The frogs are no longer critically endangered, but they still have a long way to go.
As the rest of industrial Homebush was transformed for the Olympics, the Brickpit itself followed suit, undergoing heavy remediation. It’s now an environmental feature of the Olympic Park, and features the wonderful Ring Walk, a walkway suspended above the former Brickworks site complete with a giant pond filled with what can only be described as Smylex. Those frogs must be mighty happy.
It’s funny…we spent the better part of last century digging this place up and sending it off all over the city for our homes, but the frogs cut out the red tape and came to the place itself, making it their home in less than a decade. We didn’t start building units here until years later. Am I saying a frog could run Mirvac or Lend Lease?
Abattoir Trade Meats/True Blue Meats & Spit Roast – Homebush, NSW
Here’s one just in time for the Royal Easter Show. Back when the Olympic Park was still the city’s abattoir, butchers, tanneries and cold storage companies cleaned up by establishing themselves on the outskirts of the area. This one, located on Underwood Road, which used to run along the abattoir site, was then known as Abattoir Trade Meats. When the abattoir closed in 1988, the butcher lived on, keeping the name until at least 2000.
When you stop and think about it, it’s strange to see a butcher standing alone in the suburbs like this without knowing the story. It looks old, and that sign is probably covering up an embossed name on the building, but the biggest tip-off was this sticker in the window:
Sure you do.
Timbrol Chemicals/Union Carbide/Residential – Rhodes, NSW
Following on from the Homebush Abattoir is the story of Rhodes, NSW. ‘We’re judged by the company we keep’ has never been truer than in the case of Rhodes, an industrial suburb closely identified with chemicals for most of the 20th century. The winning of the 2000 Olympic Games and subsequent renewal of the former abattoir site at Homebush Bay forced the NSW Government to remediate Rhodes, on the other side of the bay. It was hoped the suburb would be reborn as heavy residential by 2000, but this goal has still not been achieved. The primary reason is this site:
Timbrol was Australia’s first major organic chemical manufacturer, and was established here on Walker Street in 1928. Chemicals manufactured by Timbrol between 1928 and 1957 include chlorine, weed fungicide, and the insecticides DDT and DDE. To commemorate this achievement, a neighbouring street has been named after Timbrol:
In 1957, Timbrol merged with the American chemical concern Union Carbide to form Union Carbide Australia. Union Carbide had a reputation as an innovator within the chemical manufacturing industry. Facing competition from the neighbouring CSR plant, Union Carbide stepped up production of existing chemical products and created many new ones. During the Vietnam War, Union Carbide produced Agent Orange at their Rhodes site.
Whenever Union Carbide would reclaim land from Homebush Bay, it would do so by dumping toxic waste and building over it. This method was extended to the Allied Feeds site further up Walker Street. In 1997, Greenpeace found 36 rusting drums of toxic waste on the former Union Carbide site.
Faced with declining demand, diminishing returns and increasing competition, Union Carbide abandoned its Australian operations entirely in 1985. They were allowed to leave without conducting any kind of cleanup of the Rhodes site. Between 1988 and 1993, the NSW Govt began remediation attempts with the intention of using Rhodes as an Olympic village for the 2000 Sydney Games, but it was only in 2005, with the onset of private residential construction on the sites, did any serious remediation work take place. Many blocks of units were completed between 2005 and 2011, but remained empty as the ongoing cleanup work made the area too toxic to live in. Remediation was completed in early 2011, and construction has resumed.
Homebush Bay remains toxic – swimming and fishing are prohibited, and any fish caught in the bay are too poisonous to eat. The remediation work by Meriton and Thiess and has supposedly made the area safe to live in, but only time will tell.
UPDATE: It’s one year later. Is it safe yet? Find out.