new auckland

Farewell to Auckland’s historic tanks

A long-standing fixture of Auckland’s waterfront is about to disappear.

In eight weeks' time, 12 tanks that have been part of the skyline since the 1980s will be gone. The Stolthaven tanks on Wynyard Wharf are the first batch to be removed, in order to make way for America’s Cup bases. Another 53 tanks, at the north end of the wharf, will be gone by 2022. At the south end, nearer Silo Park, Bulk Storage Terminals is also vacating, although some of the taller ones will be left standing in a “selective pruning” process and incorporated into a new public space.

By Christmas the way will be clear to start laying the foundations for new infrastructure.

The tanks at Stolthaven’s southern site haven’t held petrol, diesel or jet fuel since the Marsden Point oil pipeline went through 35 years ago, but they have until now been fully occupied with other fuels, chemicals, inks, vinyls, caustic soda, solvents and raw materials for the likes of paint.

Built by BP when all the city’s petrol arrived here by ship, Wynyard Wharf is no longer a proprietary terminal, which means that Stolthaven leases storage out to various companies. From now those companies will have to bring their chemicals up from Stolthaven’s Mt Maunganui operation by truck. In some cases – for example chemical surface coatings which are mixed by the likes of Dulux and Resene to make paint – that manufacturing could now be done offshore and would then arrive as a finished product.

Brent Metson is Stolthaven’s regional engineering manager for Australasia. From an engineer’s point of view, he finds it a little sad that we don’t value such infrastructure the way we used to. The tanks were part of a system that allowed companies to add value to products and contribute to the economy. And “they all have their own little quirks and characteristics,” he says. Even though they are in good nick, none of them will be moved off site intact – too many stars have to be aligned for them to be useful elsewhere.

As for the dismantling operation, Metson says it will be done with safety as a central priority in the same way as anything else that’s been carried out at the site.

The carbon steel tanks have been gradually drawn down to leave them empty. There are no fumes floating about. With solvents the tanks evaporate dry; caustic soda just dries out. They are vented and certified safe.

The next step has been to weld lifting lugs on top of the tanks so a crane can pick them up and lay them down on their sides on an empty site that’s been created next door. Then a large digger with mechanical shears will chop them up. The metal is all recycled. That part of the operation is expected to take a day and a half for each tank.

Six pipe lines strung along the side of Wynyard Wharf and on overhead gantries, each about 470 metres long, must also be taken away and cut up for scrap. 

Some infrastructure will stay, including a road and a truck washing station, to enable the cup bases to be built. Other parts such as some pipes and valves will be sent to Mt Maunganui base – “anything we can recycle we will”.

While the physical side of the removal operation will only take eight weeks, the preparation for it, including consents, has had to be meticulous and thorough. “When you are in a business that manages potentially hazardous substances – – albeit one with an ultra low prospect of an incident – you get to that position by very methodical processes,” says Metson.

They won't be standing for much longer - blue denotes cleared and ready to dismantle. Photo: Alexia Russell

If Metson looks at the departing tanks with nostalgia, for Panuku it’s like Christmas Eve.

Design and Place Director Rod Marler looks at the tanks and sees a time when it will be five hectares of public space, thanks to another event – the 36th America’s Cup – that has Auckland cleaning house before all the visitors turn up. There has been a plan in place for the area since 2013 but there’s a good chance most people have forgotten what it was.

“It’s like a Rubik’s cube,” he says. “All the parts are moving but they’re not necessarily in sync.” One reason for that is existing leases ceasing in different time frames.

As the tanks come down, Team New Zealand is putting its signage on the Viaduct Events Centre where it moved into straight after the Boat Show left town. In two years' time all the syndicates coming to Auckland will be lined up in new bases, their comings and goings in full view of the public.

The tank farm won’t be completely wiped off the landscape. Marler says although the tanks will all be decommissioned, some of them will become part of the new park, with people able to walk around them. “We will leave little clusters of tanks, maybe some we will leave in their raw state, some have already been painted and decorated. But it will be selective pruning ... objects in this public space.

“As you move into the park the tanks will be an introduction to a place with industrial heritage.”

The whole viaduct basin which is now regularly packed with visitors was all once part of a port operation – fisheries, petrochemicals, and early on, a log farm.

“The viaduct was the child of an America’s Cup as a catalyst,” says Marler. “The 2011 Rugby World Cup was the catalyst for Wynyard Quarter and North Wharf. And now we have another catalyst in America’s Cup 2021, for Wynyard Point. So it’s these national events that really force, not out of desire often, but out of necessity, for central and local government to get together and reach agreement on some of these outcomes.”

Personally, he would like to see the area become New Zealand’s first urban regional park. Such a label would protect it, and elevate it to a level of national significance.

At the moment as well as public space entrenched in the plan, and keeping the underlying industrial and marine heritage, there will be events space, mixed residential and commercial developments ... “it’s evolving”, says Marler. “Who knows what those outcomes might be. “

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