As the old Camden High School disappears under a cloud of dust and rubble a new precinct called Camden Central will rise like a phoenix from the ashes of the past.
The original Camden High School was moved off its in John Street site due to concerns around contamination from the old Camden gasworks.
A disaster in the making
A New South Wales Government Fact Sheet stated in 2013 that an investigation of the old Camden High School site in 1995 found piping from the gasworks and identified contaminated waste the following year. The school had been located on this particular patch of ground from 1970 to 2001 after being purchased earlier by the state government.
In July 2013 ABCTV reported that there were three cases of cancer in former students attending Camden High School. A follow-up report included further details of former students and a teacher with cancers or tumours. There have a number of other media stories.
The NSW Environmental Protection Authority states:
Over 60 former gasworks sites have been identified in NSW. The gasworks produced ‘town gas’ for heating, lighting and cooking. Most ceased operating in the early- to mid- 1900s and the last of the known gasworks was decommissioned in 1985. They were often also close to the centre of the city, to minimise the size of the network of pipes used for gas distribution. The soil and groundwater at these former gasworks sites are invariably contaminated by materials produced during the gas-making process even though operations ceased many years ago.
A New South Wales Government Fact Sheet about the Camden gasworks stated in 2013
The operation of gasworks has left a legacy of soil and groundwater contamination, in some cases extending to adjoining sites. The major contaminants include tars, oils, hydrocarbon sludges, spent oxide wastes, and ash. While many of these materials were recycled or reused, it was common for some to be buried on or near the gasworks site (for instance in underground tar wells, liquor wells, pipes and purifier beds) and not removed when the gasworks were decommissioned.
Some of these contaminants are carcinogenic to humans and toxic to aquatic ecosystems and so may pose a risk to human health and the environment if significant exposure were to occur. As a result, many former gasworks sites require remediation before they can be put to other uses.
The Camden Gas Company
The former Camden gasworks started in private ownership as the Camden Gas Company in 1911. In 1946 Camden Municipal Council purchased the gasworks and started operating the facility. The gasworks closed in 1965 according the fact sheet from the state government.
The Department of Education purchased land next to the gasworks for a school in 1934. Enrolments at the Camden Central School had grown beyond its site capacity in the early 1950s. The state government built a new high school and it opened in 1956 at 2 John Street, adjacent to the still then operating gasworks.
Finding the making of a disaster
In 1970 the state government built a library and science laboratory block on former gasworks land it purchased from Camden Municipal Council.
The Department of Education then purchased additional land off AGL which had acquired the site from Camden Municipal Council.
When the Department of Education started preliminary investigations in 1995 for new building works at the school workers uncovered pits and pipes from the old gasworks.
During 1996 as additional demountable classrooms were being installed in the school grounds strong odours were detected from disturbed soil on the site. The contaminated area was sealed off and further examinations were conducted by the NSW Environmental Protection Authority.
These concerns about the John Street site contamination led to the action by state government to look for a new location for the school.
Other factors that contributed to the state government’s decision to move Camden High School were the predicted growth of the school population to twice 1996 enrolments and the school’s flood-prone site.
Together these factors prompted the state government to build a new school away from the John Street site. The new Camden High opened at Cawdor Road in 2001.
The makings of a rebirth from the womb
The John Street site was sold in 2007 to a development firm, the AEH Group, which proposed decontaminating the soil and building apartments.
According to the AEH 2017 fact sheet:
AEH Group and has secured approval from Camden Council to develop the site into a mixed-use facility focused on seniors living. Camden Central Lifestyle Estate (Camden Central) will be located right in the heart of historic Camden and will revitalise a site that has been unused for more than 15 years.
The AEH Group website states that in 2016 the development of the retirement complex was being pre-sold off the plan. The AEH website states:
Situated in the heart of the historic township, Camden Central Lifestyle Estate is soon to commence construction. AEH Group is sensitive to Camden’s proud heritage, its beauty and its unique town atmosphere. Camden Central Lifestyle Estate will enhance the site with a new vitality and energy and deliver more housing and economic benefits to the Camden community.
A bucolic paradise
The AEH Group is offering the first stage for sale with 54 apartments. The Camden Central website boasts about the towns history and heritage and the town’s special character. The ‘tranquillity of the landscape’ is evident to AEH copywriters who have maintained that the town ‘retains a peaceful rural feel’.
The developer is using the bucolic scenes from the local countryside, the town centre and the vibrant café culture to promote the development. Let’s hope it stays that way for a while.