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Byron Shire
August 15, 2022

Mullum residents: ‘defeat and distress’ over pod housing

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The site of the temporary pod village being built in central Mullumbimby on Prince Street. The street flooded with waist-high water in the recent February 2022 floods. Photo Aslan Shand

Many residents are concerned about the high-speed construction of the Emergency Housing Development along the railway corridor in Prince Street, Mullumbimby. 

The parcel of land on Prince Street, Mullumbimby where the State Government is planning to build a pod village for flood victims. Image: Google

Good idea bad location

The development is the brainchild of Resilience NSW and has the blessing of the Byron Shire Council. 

When you first hear about it you think ‘that’s wonderful!, emergency housing for the vulnerable people who were displaced from their homes in the February floods’. When you realise that this site went under more than a metre of water, you start to wonder about the suitability of the site.

The more you look into it the more questions arise and many nearby residents are deeply concerned and distressed. It is not just for the prospective 180 people who will be accommodated in the pods but for the impact on many existing homes. This project has the potential to adversely impact many homes that have never previously been flooded. Artificially raising the land will have devastating consequences.

On a recent door-knock 100 per cent of the residents expressed a feeling of defeat, not being heard, disempowerment, and distress. Their concerns are being ignored by Byron Council and Resilience NSW. 

Many of these residents are still unable to live in their own homes after the floods. Their houses are without walls, kitchens, and bathrooms, with some camping in their driveways. 

They understand the impact of the flood all too well. Many feel re-traumatised by watching the creation of this temporary village. For future tenants the prospect of having accommodation that will be no safer than what they had to temporarily abandon in the flood does not help.

The proposed pod village on rail land, Station Street, Mullumbimby.

Proposed site a poor choice because it floods

All concerned residents are in agreement there is a need for such accommodation. We deem the site chosen to be unsuitable and ill-considered. Resilience NSW website states that sites for such accommodation will be chosen on ‘their potential for future flooding’. This site in Mullumbimby is flood prone in the extreme. This is demonstrated by the many houses in close proximity to the site on Prince Street and Station Street. Studies have repeatedly stated Mullumbimby is sensitive to land being artificially raised by introducing fill. This advice has been ignored on this occasion, increasing the danger of future flooding for many residents.

Mullumbimby’s CBD under water Monday 28 February. Thi Photo Simon Haslam.

Evacuation Plan? 

The high flood water in February 2022 meant that it was perilous to attempt evacuation. The seriousness of the flood and telephone communication difficulties meant residents were trapped in their homes. 

Locals who had ‘tinnies’ and kayaks were largely responsible for assisting such people. Evacuation centres were filled with tired, traumatised residents. At one stage it was feared the Evacuation Centre (Mullumbimby Ex-Services Club) was in danger of being inundated. Despite this Resilience NSW in collaboration with Byron Shire Council are offering emergency housing to 180 people on some of the most flood prone land in the town. How will we get them to safety and where will we accommodate them if we can get them out?

Flooding at Federation Bridge in Mullumbimby. Photo Simon Haslam.

Vehicles pose a problem

Cars need to also be taken into consideration. Assuming each pod has at least one car associated with it means there will be at least 60 cars in and around the pod village. This leads to concerns around ongoing traffic congestion. It is already difficult to turn west into Mullumbimby from the streets on the northern side of Argyle Street. Requests to see traffic impact studies made public have not been successful as yet. In addition, inadequate parking on site will mean others will have to park on Prince Street, which is an already narrow street with no footpath.

Extra cars on the flood-prone land dismissed as ‘collateral damage’ by Resilience NSW

As evidenced in the last flood, the ability to move your car to safety in rapidly rising floodwaters simply wasn’t possible. Any resident in Mullumbimby remembers the number of cars that were written off in the last flood. Memories are fresh of attempts to get cars to higher ground then walking home through rising floodwaters in the middle of the night. In another flood there will be upwards of 60 extra cars competing for scarce high ground. When questioned on this matter Resilience NSW basically shrugged it off as collateral damage.

A rushed decision

Resilience NSW has stated that the pods themselves will be elevated; however, the ground underneath them will be saturated for months, so basically every time the residents step out of their pods they will be walking and living in a bog. A flood is not a 24-hour event and then it’s over; it’s an ongoing ground and surface-water problem. If there is an attempt solve the mud problem by pouring fill and artificially raising the land that will effectively displace flood waters higher into existing homes. Within three days of a letter being delivered to some residents, stating this development was happening, truckloads of roadbase (fill?) were delivered onto the site. This has been ongoing for two weeks – truck after truck of fill – no wonder the locals are concerned. 

Contamination problem

There is a question the site may be contaminated from years of trains operating on the tracks. It is on the EPA website as a contaminated site that is going through regulatory procedures before decontamination can commence. Hopefully the site has been tested for asbestos (from the brakes on the trains) and arsenic (used to eradicate termites from the sleepers). It would be pertinent for the testing report to made available to Mullumbimby residents to allay concerns that families are being placed in an unsafe environment. 

In 2014 The Echo newspaper reported the rail corridor running through Lismore had been tested and found to be contaminated and is unsuitable for use as a rail trail. Given the same train line with the same trains ran through the centre of this emergency housing development, there are valid concerns and testing results should be made available.

A further concern is the lack of silt fencing on the construction site. Silt fencing is a state government requirement for any building site, let alone one so large on which significant amount of fill has been placed. Environmentally damaging run-off into the river is a very real possibility. This needs to be investigated and rectified.

There is also the concern of possible detrimental health effects as a consequence of placing pods above a 180MW underground electricity cable known as the Terranora Interconnector. It runs north–south through the centre of the land chosen for the pod village and transfers electricity between NSW and QLD.

The site of the temporary pod village being built in central Mullumbimby on Prince Street. The street flooded with waist high water in the recent February 2022 floods. Photo Aslan Shand

Cheap and available doesn’t make it suitable

There are many questions and concerns raised by local residents that remain unanswered or unacknowledged. We know that Byron Council has stated the site was always earmarked for housing. However, residential housing (as opposed to a hastily erected pod village) would have had all the correct studies done with rezoning taking place and a DA on display for public comment and participation etc etc… the process would have taken a few years and rightly so. Due diligence and planning rules seem to have been overlooked when it comes to this project. Just because the site is cheap and available doesn’t make it suitable. It is cheap and available because it floods and may be contaminated, which means it is unsuitable.

More thought and planning required

Housing on the site should be undertaken with more thought, sensitivity, and planning together with community consultation. That isn’t what’s happening here. The speed at which this is going ahead and the disregard shown to due process and residents is both alarming and disappointing. Mullumbimby residents deserve the right to be heard and consulted before any more works takes place.

♦ Steve Bellerby is a member of the Mullumbimby Residents Association.


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6 COMMENTS

  1. The article says, ‘In 2014 The Echo newspaper reported the rail corridor running through Lismore had been tested and found to be contaminated and is unsuitable for use as a rail trail. ‘

    Here is that article: https://www.echo.net.au/2014/12/concerns-raised-regions-toxic-railway-tracks/ and I quote from it.

    ‘Users of a proposed rail trail on the Casino to Murwillumbah line could be exposed to toxic chemicals including arsenic and asbestos, a Lismore councillor has warned.

    ‘Cr Neil Marks raised concerns about the toxicity of the track during a debate at the final meeting of the Lismore City Council for the year.’

    ‘But it was Cr Mark (sic) who threw the toxic cocktail into the debate, saying he had spoken with someone who had been involved with testing along the track.’

    So it amounts to Cr Marks making an unsubstantiated claim that he had ‘spoken with someone’ and eight years later we have The Echo publishing an article referring to it as, ‘the rail corridor running through Lismore had been tested and found to be contaminated and is unsuitable for use as a rail trail.’ To call that “lazy journalism”, would be to assign too much credit.

    The rail trail has been under construction in Tweed Shire for several months. Testing certainly was done as part of that project for any potential of contamination and none was found.

    A couple of years ago I conducted an extensive search for articles about contamination of railways. There was absolutely nothing but hearsay about arsenic from sleeper preservation or asbestos from brakes. I found that sleepers are preserved by pressure injection of creosote in a process that has been used the world over since the nineteenth century.

    Brakes on trains have never used asbestos linings. Their brakes consist of cast iron blocks driven onto the rim of the wheels. The only place asbestos was ever used in the train brakes was as heat insulators between the lining blocks and structure and, as such, were not subjected to asbestos being dispersed in any appreciable amount. Even this use was not widespread and not for a long time.

    The asbestos and arsenic contamination myths have been concocted and perpetrated by rail advocates who have been repeatedly exposed as having no regard for facts and will say anything to try and stop the trail being built. It is a shame that The Echo is participating in that process.

    • I reply to Greg Clitheroe, I knew personally the person who I am sure is the person mentioned by Cr Marks. The work that was to be done at Lismore Railway was stopped and done elsewhere because of the contamination and also a gardening business would/could not take any old sleepers as they had to be tested for contamination first and I sent this information to Cr Simon Richardson Byron Council re the use of used rail sleepers.
      Jillian Spring

  2. the car in the photo of prince st has floodwater halfway up the tyres, the numberplate is visible and water is below the chassis – about 1ft of water – not waist deep, not 1.5 metres, just a few inches. Our Council chambers, a food store and a kids preschool and playground are all located on ‘toxic’ rail land, with council approval and no apparent health problems. misleading exaggeration from local residents, and printed without checking the facts is not helping anyone.

  3. Complaining that the pods are being made in a flood zone blows my mind when mullum landlords have increased the rent of houses including those that have gone under they have kicked the tenants out quickly painted it put down cheap builders carpet and put their rent up. A 3 bedroom tiny dank preflooded home with no backyard $815 it’s disgusting and yet people are worried about pods being in a flood zone most of mullum is now a flood zone! We should be worried about the greed that’s swallowing up our once beautiful town not finding fault in trying to affordably house those without home who have been kicked out for pure greed.

  4. The whole situation is very tragic and I deeply feel for all victims… especially the homeless and the ongoing trauma that is resulting for all of the community. However, whilst we are told that the “rail lines are being ripped up, and there will never be trains again, that rail tracks are more appropriate for cyclists and pedestrians, the community is negatively affected by the TOOTS campaign ‘and so on. Can we pause and all contribute to an EVACUATION PLAN FOR THE FUTURE. This is a big ask when homelessness is growing. But we can chew gum and walk too. I am sure there are some folk with great ideas. We need to learn from the current situation. I suggest that we must demand FUNDING for Early warning systems from the NSW State Government with appropriate funding that ensures State of the Art COMMUNICATION SYSTEMS for the total Northern Region. We are aware that roads disappear when flooding occurs and the dangers of driving in same. Therefore, given the obvious realities surrounding Climate Change , Trains MAY be a an appropriate resource aiding Evacuation to safe Evacuation Centres. This is a primitive suggestion at this stage but it is worth consideration. “The Monthly” magazine (latest edition) writes of the Lismore floods and the indication that there is a suggestion that there were more than 4 deaths. This is yet to be further researched. The Pods are indicated as a Band Aid support…safer housing for ALL communities is vital as we face the horrors of Climate Change. Open debate of suggestions and possibilities for the future is vital and as Civil Society saved lives…thus I argue that within this Society lies the future vision.

  5. The level of privilege you need to object to emergency housing for people 6 months after the actual disaster on completely unused land is spectacular.

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