A Mas­sive Cover-up

The Monthly (Australia) - - FRONT PAGE - by Pa­trick Wit­ton

In the sec­ond half of the 19th cen­tury, David Mitchell was one of Mel­bourne’s best-known builders. Rid­ing the city’s gold-fu­elled growth, the for­mer ma­son’s ap­pren­tice was re­spon­si­ble for many of its new struc­tures, in­clud­ing the Pres­by­te­rian Ladies’ Col­lege and the Royal Ex­hi­bi­tion Build­ing. In 1874, per­haps in a bout of self-con­grat­u­la­tion, Mitchell de­cided to take his teenage daugh­ter He­len Porter Mitchell on a tour of his lat­est project: the “dec­o­rated Gothic” Scots’ Church on Collins Street. The high­light of their visit was a trip to the top of the 64-me­tre spire, which re­quired as­cent in a bar­row. It is nice to think the ex­cur­sion had fa­ther and daugh­ter sway­ing above Mar­vel­lous Mel­bourne – his top hat pulled tight, her para­sol fringe flut­ter­ing – and that the ex­pe­ri­ence may have prompted Miss Mitchell to fol­low her “higher call­ing” as a singer. But the out­ing took place at least 10 years be­fore she rein­vented her­self as Nel­lie Melba; back then her fa­ther was the house­hold name. Mitchell soon en­tered the lime and ce­ment game, so that he could put the squeeze on those mo­nop­o­lis­ing Gee­long lime­burn­ers. In 1878 he es­tab­lished the Cave Hill Lime­stone Quarry, on Mel­bourne’s outer-east­ern flanks, and it grew quickly to feature steam-pow­ered cranes, rail links and 24-hour lime­burn­ing fa­cil­i­ties. And, as the city ex­panded, Mitchell’s quarry deep­ened – pro­vid­ing the es­sen­tial min­eral for mor­tar and other con­struc­tion ma­te­ri­als. The Mitchell fam­ily only sold the Cave Hill con­cern in 2002, and at the end of 2015, 99 years af­ter Mitchell’s death, it ceased op­er­a­tions en­tirely. But to pack up a quarry is no easy task. Three years on, com­muters on the fi­nal stretch of the Li­ly­dale train line still pass the site’s pro­cess­ing plant: a tan­gle of lime-caked cor­ru­gated-iron sheds that re­sem­ble the finest in Ro­ma­nian heavy in­dus­try circa 1950. There was a time when, if you looked at the right mo­ment while on the train, you could see the in­cen­di­ary glow com­ing from the round-the-clock kilns. Now, as we tour the Cave Hill site on the sort of win­ter’s day that makes your ears ache, the space holds no resid­ual heat, and moss has crept into cor­ners that would once have been blasted dry.

Our tour is led by Maxwell Shif­man, chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of In­tra­pac Prop­erty, which is part of a con­sor­tium that is fill­ing the quarry be­fore it com­mences con­struc­tion of a new hous­ing de­vel­op­ment. Even when wear­ing the oblig­a­tory hard hat and hi-vis vest, Shif­man is an in­con­gruity: he’s sharply dressed and fresh faced, while other work­ers on the site wear KingGee and have a lightly limed com­plex­ion. By Shif­man’s mea­sure, Cave Hill is “the big­gest sin­gle ur­ban-in­fill site in Aus­tralia” (as op­posed to a green­field site). Size is a hard thing to con­vey; suf­fice to say, if you wanted to nick the Mel­bourne Cricket Ground and bury it, in­clud­ing its light tow­ers, this quarry would be more than fit­ting. And yet the quarry makes up less than one-sixth of the de­vel­op­ment area. While we travel around the site sur­round­ing the quarry, Shif­man points out his­tor­i­cal land­marks that he plans to re­tain in the precinct’s fi­nal de­sign. In fact, he is as versed in the site’s her­itage as in its geotech­ni­cal spec­i­fi­ca­tions, most no­tably the legacy of Mitchell, who “was con­stantly in­no­vat­ing, con­stantly try­ing new things out, new method­olo­gies, im­prov­ing the ex­trac­tion process”. As Shif­man ex­plains, Mitchell even di­ver­si­fied within the prop­erty. One of his other ven­tures on the site is re­mem­bered by a sturdy Vic­to­rian-era brick struc­ture: a smokehouse that was “the of­fi­cial sup­plier of ba­con to the gov­ern­ment”. More im­pres­sive is the lime­stone-pro­cess­ing plant, ac­ces­si­ble only with the help of a work­man called Bazza, who, af­ter try­ing nu­mer­ous keys on a lime-caked pad­lock, achieves ingress by way of an an­gle grinder. Bazza worked at the quarry when it was still ac­tive, and has stayed on for the tran­si­tion. “So Bazza’s con­fused,” says Shif­man. “One minute he’s tak­ing stuff out of the hole …” Bazza leads us to the nine kilns lo­cated in­side one of the larger cor­ru­gated-iron sheds: a mas­sive space known as “the tun­nel”. As Shif­man says, “it’s like a cathe­dral – re­ally quite spec­tac­u­lar”. At one end of the tun­nel are rem­nants of the spur rail track that con­nected to the Mel­bourne line. And at the other splays the ex­pan­sive maw of Cave Hill quarry. From the quarry’s north­ern lip we peer down 120 me­tres. In the fog-soft­ened dis­tance, be­low dart­ing east­ern spinebills and hardy veg­e­ta­tion cling­ing to the pit’s scarred edges, are yel­low trucks the size of houses tak­ing part in a revving, clunk­ing, beep­ing dance. As we watch the lum­ber­ing ac­tiv­ity be­low, Shif­man de­tails how one goes about fill­ing a 9-mil­lion-cu­bic-me­tre hole. “We’ve de­vised an en­gi­neer­ing method­ol­ogy that re­quires us to place the ma­te­rial in cer­tain lay­ers and test it in cer­tain ways …” Shif­man then mea­sures the com­pre­hen­sion of his au­di­ence and changes tack: “Sim­plis­ti­cally, we are pick­ing things up, putting them in a big yel­low truck, driv­ing them down and squash­ing them all.” A site worker who has ac­com­pa­nied us points to a large ve­hi­cle that has what looks like a mon­ster’s hair roller tacked to its front, and help­fully adds, “That’s do­ing the squash­ing.” At the low­est point of the hole sits a pool­ing “sump” of wa­ter, which is be­ing pumped out at a rate of 1.8 mil­lion litres a day. Yes, this is big stats ter­ri­tory. “Dis­ap­pear­ing” the quarry us­ing the mille-feuille strat­egy will in­volve 400,000 truck­loads car­ry­ing 20 mil­lion tonnes of fill, and take about five years. And as to what the quarry is be­ing filled with? Shif­man ex­plains that some 40 hectares of the sur­round­ing area (also part of the de­vel­op­ment) are cov­ered by “over­bur­den”: use­less rock that also came out of the hole. “So when they ex­tracted the ma­te­rial, not ev­ery­thing went off­site. Only about 25 per cent was the ac­tual lime­stone.” What’s more, Cave Hill was in­deed a hill when David Mitchell be­gan dig­ging, and there is enough over­bur­den avail­able to reach a level sur­face. So the quarry will not be em­ployed to solve Aus­tralia’s refuse woes. And when asked whether a re­quest to “dis­ap­pear” a pack­age of in­crim­i­nat­ing doc­u­ments would be con­sid­ered, Shif­man does not blink. “Ev­ery load of ma­te­rial that goes down has to be geotech­ni­cally suit­able, and is su­per­vised by a geotech­ni­cal engi­neer full time. ’Cos we need to make sure it’s safe and sta­ble at the end.” While an­other big yel­low truck cir­cles slowly down into the pit, Shif­man sums up the process of un­do­ing Mitchell’s 140-year-old en­ter­prise: “We are lit­er­ally putting back what came out.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.