- BUILD: Developer Danny Murphy has a vision for Huntlee.
- GO AHEAD: Friends of Huntlee spokesman Mick Starkey.
- WORKINGS: Chris Parker with erosion grooves in a chitter pile
PARTS of the Hunter site slated for the state’s biggest housing development, worth $1.5billion, must undergo a massive clean-up to remove hectares of toxic waste to make it safe for residents.
A Newcastle Herald investigation has found there is more than 500,000 cubic metres of coal waste, responsible for leaching acid into nearby Black Creek, spread across 20hectares at the Huntlee New Town site.
The chitter piles are toxic to plants and threaten surface and groundwater.
Numerous expert reports over the past eight years have investigated how to deal with the massive waste piles, but there is still no solution.
Part of the North Rothbury site was home to Ayrfield Colliery, closed in 1975, and later a coal washery plant and an illegal waste dump for construction material.
The tip was shut down by the Environment Protection Authority in 2005 for not lining waste cells.
It caught fire in 2006, burning for days through a hectare of rubbish layered up to 20metres deep.
Over the next 25 years, about 800hectares of land off Wine Country Drive will be reborn in four stages as Huntlee, becoming home to 20,000 people.
The first stage of the housing estate was approved by the state government in April after lengthy legal battles.
It includes 2000 house lots and 60hectares of town centre valued by LWP Property Group at $23 million.
LWP managing director Danny Murphy said without the development, the coal waste piles, subsidence holes and dangerous old mine workings would remain.
He said there had been a ‘‘risk issue there for many years’’ and ‘‘it won’t be fixed unless we come in and fix it’’.
“As part of our approval we’re required to clean up those areas,” he said.
“We have to have clean-up plans approved by the relevant authorities … Without us the land stays in its current state, which is unacceptable.”
According to the publicity material, Huntlee will be an urban renewal masterpiece offering an enviable lifestyle and bustling commercial hub just minutes from the end of the new Hunter Expressway and New England Highway.
The town is based on the “cradle to the grave” notion, with land size and facilities to cater for all stages of life.
Cessnock mayor Bob Pynsent, who visited LWP’s flagship residential development Ellenbrook in Western Australia, described Huntlee as a “great opportunity”.
Cr Pynsent said he had no doubt the company would fully remediate the site to the benefit of local residents.
“It’s going to be a real trailblazer in terms of urban renewal and it’s been approved so people have to live with it,” he said.
‘‘Being able to move across one community as you age and not lose your friends is completely different and exciting.’’
But resident activist and third-generation Ayrfield Colliery worker John Butler said the fight against Huntlee would continue.
“It is beyond comprehension how they can even think about putting homes and businesses on parts of that site,” he said.
“I have no problem with Huntlee in the areas they plan to use that have not been undermined. But part of that land is some of the most contaminated, polluted, undermined land in the valley and it’s dangerous.”
Mr Butler recalls a large cave-in of old workings in the early 1980s filled by washery staff with 38 car bodies, up to 500 tonnes of chitter and 44 cubic metres of concrete.
Former Aryfield miner Ashley Ralston said some of the workings were that shallow, men used to “swing off the tree roots” underground.
“We started digging for coal in one area and found all the tree roots coming through from the surface,” he said.
“You would just grab hold of them and swing around as a bit of a joke. As the mine got older, it went deeper and it was far more stable.”
A remediation and rehabilitation plan completed by the developer’s environmental consultants AECOM in 2009 found that “based on the limited intrusive investigations, the extent of the contamination is unknown and a further detailed investigation is recommended”.
In July last year, as part of a stage one site investigation report AECOM found “overall contamination issues should not be seen as an impediment to the proposed development”.
“Further stage two detailed investigations for contamination are not considered necessary at this stage,” it said.
The old mine, coal washery plant, tailing cells and waste dump are on the western side of Wine Country Drive, in stages of Huntlee yet to have government approval.
Mr Murphy said the whole site had been rezoned for urban use and the biggest area of concern for mine subsidence was located on land in stage four.
He said there would be no construction zones in high-risk areas and it would be several years before LWP would be seeking further approval.
In the meantime, the old mine site and chitter piles will be fenced.
“We have a number of years to work out the best way to handle it, it’s not an urgent issue,” he said.
“We have all the investigations completed for land east of Wine Country Drive and there are no subsidence issues.”
He said “plan A” was to remove the massive coal waste piles from the site, with potential for the material to be recycled.
Numerous reports discuss how to deal with the massive piles with one expert describing removal as “extremely beneficial”.
In 2007, environmental consultants David Lane Associates said the sheer volume and cost involved made it “not really an option”.
The company recommended the creation of an “on-site landfill” to bury and cap the waste.
Another report by consultants HDB said ‘‘due to the size of the stockpiles they dominate the landscape in their respective locations’’.
‘‘They consist of materials that are capable of generating contaminating chemicals and leachate and threaten the Black Creek ecology,’’ the report said.
‘‘In addition, they have a propensity for spontaneous combustion.’’
Advice from Douglas Partners stated that up to half the material in the waste piles was combustible.
“There is a risk, therefore, that the stockpile could combust, either by spontaneous combustion or by an external ignition sources such as bushfire or lightning,” it states.
North Rothbury Residents Group (formerly Sweetwater Action Group) president Chris Parker said it was important residents were “fully informed”.
“Stage one is where most of the developer’s income will come from and it will be interesting to see if stage two proceeds in its current form because it’s here where they need to start spending big money on remediation,” Mr Parker said.
“They keep saying a plan will evolve to rehabilitate the site and there is still nothing in concrete.”
But Mr Murphy said there was “no danger” of LWP walking away from the development, as the majority of profit would be made in the last quarter of the project.
Despite extensive underground workings at the site, Mine Subsidence Board chief executive Greg Cole-Clark confirmed Huntlee was not in a proclaimed mine subsidence district.
“The board’s approval is not required for subdivision or surface development,” he said.
In December last year, the board recommended LWP “determine the precise location of mine workings on the eastern edge of the development and consult the board if they require remediation”.
Mr Murphy said without Huntlee mine subsidence risk and contamination would remain.
‘‘There are trailbike riders who ride illegally there now, they are at risk,’’ he said.
‘‘Children from nearby North Rothbury who might wander in there illegally, they are at risk.’’
The Newcastle Herald reported in September on seven derelict mine sites in the Lower Hunter affected by acid mine drainage including Aberdare East, Testers Hollow, Neath, Dagworth, Greta and Rothbury.
HUNTLEE HAS FRIENDS AND FOES
IT is a fight that has spanned almost a decade, pitting residents, politicians and legal minds against each other.
Once known as Sweetwater and now Huntlee, it is the state’s biggest housing development and first new town in the Hunter for more than 50 years.
Vast tracts of housing and commercial property will be built over rural land and old mine workings at North Rothbury in four stages.
The difficulties developers have experienced negotiating the combined forces of resident opposition, government red tape and legal challenges have left a paperwork legacy but not much more to show.
But that is all about to change.
Developer LWP Property Group has issued tenders for the first 125 lots and upgrade of Wine Country Drive.
Work will start in December and is expected to be completed by August, with stage one of the mega-development to take seven years.
Average lot prices in stage one are $175,000 and average lot size is 675 square metres.
‘‘What the Hunter needs is a new town,’’ managing director Danny Murphy said.
Block sizes will range from 150 square metres, less than a tennis court, to 1200 square metres.
While conceding some people find the smaller block sizes ‘‘outrageous’’, Mr Murphy said there was great demand for a range of land options.
‘‘It’s based on the notion of from the cradle to the grave,’’ he said.
The town will be spread across 1700hectares, with 800hectares for development and 900hectares for conservation.
Cessnock Greens councillor James Ryan questioned the size of the development and appropriateness of the site.
Cr Ryan said parts of the land were purchased cheaply by the original developer Hardie Holdings, no longer involved in the project, due to contamination.
LWP bought into Huntlee in 2007 for $185million from developer Duncan Hardie.
‘‘The thing that troubles me about the site is not what we know about it, but what we don’t know,’’ Cr Ryan said.
‘‘What is not shown on the old mine maps, that most people concede are not reliable, and what has happened historically. The landfill that operated out there was a cowboy operation that had to be shut down, it’s anyone’s guess what’s out there.’’
Cr Ryan said he also feared Huntlee’s commercial centre would have a ‘‘huge impact’’ on Cessnock and Singleton central business districts.
But Friends of Huntlee spokesman and Branxton Greta Community Business Chamber head Mick Starkey described that opinion as ‘‘flawed’’.
‘‘With up to an extra 30,000 people the only thing that can happen is we all move forward,’’ he said.
‘‘I own a pub and I think it will be great for the area, there will be plenty of people to go around.’’
A LONG AND DIFFICULT HISTORY
IT was once seen as one of the Hunter’s most spectacular real estate anomalies, but in the past 15 months more than 900 people have registered interest in buying land.
Forty contracts have been issued and almost all are expected to result in sales.
Described by the three-person state government panel that approved stage one of Huntlee earlier this year as having a ‘‘long and difficult history’’, the development has survived protests, legal action and court judgments that have rejected ministerial decisions.
In 2011 the NSW Land and Environment Court overturned the project’s state significant site status and rezoning that was gazetted in December 2010 under the former Labor state government.
Justice Peter Biscoe upheld a challenge from the Sweetwater Action Group in finding former minister for planning Tony Kelly had not properly considered the need for remediation work on some of the site’s land and its suitability for uses once rezoned.
As well, the minister should have heeded a voluntary planning agreement for the development, in which the proponents agreed to transfer more than 5000 hectares of conservation offset lands and $1.1million to manage the lands to the government following the site’s gazettal.
But the NSW Supreme Court overturned that decision in late 2011 and reinstated the project’s rezoning.
It was the second legal challenge against the development.
Previously, the government conceded it had granted approval for the project unlawfully, in the wake of a separate court decision that found memorandums about offset conservation lands constituted a “land bribe”.