30 November 2023

Former rubbish dump now thriving as a sanctuary for birds, plants, reptiles - and volunteers

| Eileen Mulligan
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Two women on a deck overlooking the Port Kembla Steelworks.

Volunteers Monika Korn and Geraldine Sunderland are proud of the deck they painted which looks out over the steelworks and the Five Islands. Photo: Eileen Mulligan.

A native spur flower grows from an old toilet in a grove of trees on land which once was Wollongong’s builders’ tip.

A volunteer with a sense of the absurd popped the plant (Plectranthus parviflorus) in the porcelain pan, creating a symbol of the resilience of the bush in Greenhouse Park.

Greenhouse Park is 10 ha of former landfill, nestled between Port Kembla Steelworks, Springhill Road and the golf course. It became a park in 1999 and has won several awards for its environmental education and habitat creation, a Wollongong City Council spokesperson said.

The council – with the NSW Environment Protection Authority – is remediating the land which is home to many species, including the endangered green and golden bell frog.

Members of the public can walk through the park and stop at the lookout deck to take in the views over the Five Islands, escarpment, golf course and heavy industry. They can stroll past remnant salt marsh which is an endangered ecological community.

“Between 1948 and 1994 this site was originally the city’s municipal waste depot and then used as a landfill tip for builders,” a Wollongong City Council spokesperson said.

“There weren’t the same environmental licence requirements or landfill standards in place as we have today.”

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The southwest corner of the park is known to have the highest risk from contaminants.

“Our focus is to minimise the release of petroleum hydrocarbons and other items like coal tar and lubricating oils. The area is now fenced off for the safety of park users.

“The next stage for the site is the design and construction of remediation measures which are scheduled to continue through to 2025.

“We have begun detailed designs on an interception system to capture contaminants and reduce the risk of entry into the waterway. This work must be completed before we can revisit masterplans for the wider Greenhouse Park,” the spokesperson said.

Greenhouse Park is thriving with help from community groups such as Rotary, schools, business and industry.

A core group of volunteers removes weeds, mows grass and plants native trees, shrubs and understorey plants, grown by the Wollongong Botanic Garden nursery, to encourage the return of birds, mammals and reptiles.

Longest-serving volunteer Marie Mitchell-Stanley retired early and has worked at the site for nearly 20 years.

“There was a lot of the time when we’d be digging a hole for something, or putting trees in, that we’d come across old leftover rubbish, like photocopy machines and old carpets,” Marie said.

“I’m in my 70s – and I’m still here. I had always worked in an office and when I retired I wanted to do some volunteer work outside.

“I do a lot of bushwalking and birding and I love the bush. So, I thought it would be nice to keep the bush clean and pull out all the noxious weeds.”

Volunteer co-ordinator Johnny Alevras started volunteering in the late 1990s which led to employment with Wollongong Council in 2011.

“There’s been well over 100,000 trees planted, maybe 150,000 trees over the years,” Johnny said.

“I’d recommend volunteering to everyone for the training, experience, making connections and building relationships – just getting your face out there and getting known in the community.”

Michael “Fred” Wright joined when he lost his job at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I used to work at the steelworks and I had the opportunity to join this group and I thought I would give it a try and I’ve been here ever since.”

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What does he like best about it?

“It’s the people and what we do,” he said. “It’s outdoors and relaxing. No stress.”

Weeding and mowing are ongoing, supervisor Lisa Peet said. “It’s like painting the Harbour Bridge,” she said. “You get to the end and you start again.”

But there are perks to the job. During whale migration seasons, tools are put down for a moment if a tail or a waterspout is seen out to sea.

Volunteers have added personal touches to areas of the park, constructing rustic benches and pathways, and tending the frog ponds, community garden and orchard.

They have planted an avenue of Illawarra flame trees which should look spectacular in years to come – if they can keep the feral deer away.

Members of the public are welcome to stroll through Greenhouse Park. They can park in JJ Kelly Park and enter Greenhouse Park via one of the pedestrian entrances. The main gates are open to vehicles on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Greenhouse Park is included on tours run by Inside Industry. Click here for tour information.

For more information on Greenhouse Park volunteering, click here.

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