MILLIONS of litres of toxic waste collected from across Australia has been secretly pumped into creeks or dumped on the ground over decades by a Maitland waste-oil refinery company.
A Newcastle Herald investigation can reveal that Truegain Pty Ltd, also known as Australian Waste Oil Refineries (AWOR), pumped vast quantities of a chemical cocktail polluting creeks that run to the Hunter River.
The contamination dates back to the 1990s.
Truegain was also dumping the notorious contaminant per- and poly-fluoroalkyl [PFAS] into Maitland's sewer and the toxic firefighting chemicals - at the heart of the Williamtown’s ‘red zone’ environmental scandal - have been detected in extremely high levels in a creek behind the refinery.
As the effort continues to contain the heavily contaminated site, dozens of former workers have told how the company would routinely use its Rutherford plant and surrounding waterways as a dumping ground for waste collected from across NSW, Canberra and Victoria - though one former company director the Herald was able to reach denied the claims.
Former workers, who described the operation as “ultra shonky”, said rather than treat all the waste brought to the Kyle Street refinery, Truegain would dump products it had collected from industrial yards, airports, service stations, mines and car washes, especially if the plant was nearing capacity.
Dirty, frothy, caustic-smelling or oily liquid waste would be flushed down drains or pumped to nearby Stony Creek.
They just used to put it straight down the side drain or down the back, it happened all the time
“They just used to put it straight down the side drain or down the back, it happened all the time,” a former employee said.
“Most of us had families and mortgages, it was a terrible situation to be put in.”
Large hoses would be connected to storage tanks and liquid pumped down a stormwater drain on Maitland City Council land along the eastern boundary of the property, or from storage tanks at the rear of the plant: all to avoid the cost of paying for “expensive” treatment chemicals and to give the appearance that the company was meeting limits for discharge into Maitland's sewer system.
As a result, a huge quantity of prohibited chemicals made their way into Stony Creek that leads to the Hunter River.
To avoid detection, Truegain took advantage of its 24-hour operating licence, flushing at night, and during times of heavy rain.
Philip Towers, who worked at the refinery for more than a decade and refused to have anything to do with the illegal dumping, said the pollution of waterways around the plant was “no accident”.
“It was deliberately done, all to save money,” he said. “I remember 160,000 litres of dirty water went missing one weekend. When I left on Friday it was there and when I came back on Monday it was gone.”
But a former company director denied the practice when contacted by the Herald.
“Whatever we discharged was discharged in an appropriate manner,” said the former director, who was on site three to four times a week.
“I would not only have not seen it, but would not have allowed it.”
The organisation was made up of two companies - Truegain dealt with contaminated water while Australian Waste Oil Refineries handled waste oil and processed fuel.
It promoted itself as an environmental champion that primarily recycled waste lube oil.
But in reality, the ageing Rutherford plant lacked maintenance, struggled to cope in times of rain and illegal dumping and accidental spills were commonplace.
Barry Grant, one of more than 35 former workers who spoke to the Herald, spent 12 years at the refinery and said workers didn't speak out because they couldn't afford to lose their jobs and didn't want to be responsible for their co-workers ending up unemployed.
“There was a lot of under the table stuff going on, but I kept away from it,” he said. “It was unfortunately an ongoing thing.”
According to a former supervisor, the company would fool inspectors by pouring milk into storage tanks so it looked like chemicals were being added as part of a treatment process.
Several employees said the company got away with flushing “vast amounts” of toxic wastewater down Maitland’s sewer through a bypass system installed to circumvent the discharge water meter.
Jeff Gayford, who worked at the refinery for a decade, said the Rutherford site was so badly contaminated when trucks drove into the plant during rain oil would ooze up through cracks in the concrete.
“The whole place was one big problem,” he said.
Workers described a “culture of fear” at the refinery and said there was a high “churn” rate of staff.
“I worked for the company for seven or eight years and I’m pretty sure it’s been happening the whole time,” another employee said.
“The employees didn’t really know what was in the stuff they were handling. You get put in a position where you feel like you didn’t have a choice.”
Former employee Craig Burgess said Truegain would take waste from “every and anywhere” as long as there was “a dollar in it".
“It didn’t matter what it was, they’d take anything they could get their hands on for money,” he said.
“It was an exceptionally dodgy operation and the place was always falling apart.”
Added to the illegal waste stream was “whatever was in the back of trucks” that workers saw siphoned onto the ground, instead of being pumped into storage tanks, when the plant was nearing capacity.
In 2016, Truegain was caught by Hunter Water releasing toxic firefighting foam chemicals, or PFAS, into the sewer.
The company pleaded ignorance, telling authorities it was not engaged to treat the contaminant and was unaware PFAS was within liquid sent to the refinery for treatment.
But documents obtained by The Herald under freedom of information laws reveal a stunning admission from a relatively junior staff member whose account stands at odds with the company’s.
The worker told a Hunter Water compliance officer, before PFAS was detected at the site, he believed foam build-up on tanks at the refinery was caused by groundwater Truegain had been collecting “on and off for quite a while” that was contaminated with “fire retardant”.
The revelation triggered Hunter Water’s investigation that found PFAS levels at the refinery “not dissimilar to the extremely high concentrations detected in parts of the Williamtown investigation area”, according to the authority’s then interim chief executive, Jeremy Bath.
PFAS was also found at the Farley Wastewater Treatment Plant, several kilometres away.
The Herald can also reveal that thousands of litres of Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF), a fire retardant manufactured by 3M and used by the military - including Williamtown RAAF Base - commercial airports, fire brigades and heavy industry for decades, was found at Truegain's heavily contaminated St Marys storage yard in Sydney.
Workers said Truegain trucks would ply back and forth between St Marys and Rutherford hiding waste the company did not want authorities to find during inspections.
Several employees said they believed at least some of the PFAS came from the Williamtown area.
Truegain had a “long standing” relationship with the Department of Defence, regularly collecting spent aviation fuel and other waste products from Williamtown RAAF Base dating back more than 10 years.
Documents obtained by the Herald under freedom of information laws reveal that during an investigation to track the source of the PFAS at the refinery, Defence told the EPA that Truegain had not been at Williamtown RAAF Base since 2008.
But workers tell a different story.
One employee said waste oil and fuel was collected from Williamtown RAAF Base on a weekly basis at times, but wastewater was sometimes left out to be collected with the load.
“They’d ring and say ‘we need you to come and take it’,” an employee said.
Another worker recalled being asked to use a vacuum truck to suck up wastewater from a trench at the base when he was there collecting spent aviation fuel.
“It went straight into a tank at the oil refinery,” he said. “It was before the public knew anything about PFAS.”
A former Truegain manager said it was commonplace for clients to “negotiate deals”.
“If you want this, you have to take that,” he said. “A lot of the time it was stuff other people just wouldn’t touch. That happened all the time.”
When asked about the workers’ version of events - that Truegain trucks were collecting waste from the base long after 2008 - Defence changed its story from what it initially told the EPA.
A Defence spokesman said Truegain “last accessed RAAF Base Williamtown in 2014”.
An EPA spokeswoman said Truegain collected liquid waste from “many industrial sources” and it was unable to determine “individual sources”.
“The EPA has identified both hydrocarbons and PFAS in the spill containment system at the Rutherford site,” she said.
Several former senior Truegain employees said it was not always possible to know where product was coming from.
“We would get trucks in from Williamtown all the time,” one said. “A lot of the time trucks would arrive with no paperwork. You had no idea where it was from or what it was carrying.”
Others said paperwork was routinely stored in the back of a broken down pantech truck at the refinery.
“I’m not sure if it was the stuff they didn’t want people to see or that was just their filing system,” an employee said. “It says a lot about the way things were done though.”
Contaminated aviation fuel from RAAF bases and airports, known by the workers as “avtar”, was highly sought after by Truegain as a cleaning product.
Workers described how they would regularly fill buckets from a tank of aviation fuel at the refinery and use it to strip oil from machinery and concrete. The residue would be hosed down the drain.
“The plant would be spotless afterwards,” an employee said. “They loved that stuff and couldn’t get enough of it.”
Truegain's fleet of trucks operated from Rutherford, St Marys and Canberra collecting waste products including oil, solvent, water, aviation fuel, grease, diesel and petrol.
Mr Towers said he found it hard to believe that EPA inspectors, who regularly visited the refinery, did not shut the place down.
He said authorities did not need test tubes of contaminated water from surrounding creeks to prove what Truegain was doing.
The evidence was in the “huge trees” on the site that were reduced to sticks after being poisoned by the toxic industrial discharge.
“I'm talking about 50-foot trees that are just dead and the EPA is walking around underneath them paying no attention,” he said.
“I saw one killed in a matter of weeks, it must have been 40 years old.
“They needed the vacuum tanker on the road and we had nowhere to put the produce that was in it, whatever it was, so they just opened up the valve and let it trickle out of there and the tree just died. That was it.”
An EPA spokeswoman defended the watchdog’s handling of Truegain. She said it took “strong regulatory action”, including prosecutions to address poor environmental performance.
“A NSW Land and Environment Court decision in previous years had allowed Truegain to continue to operate which required Truegain to work with the EPA and a court appointed expert to improve its operations,” she said.
According to workers, wastewater accepted by the refinery was so toxic that at times it recorded chemical oxygen demand (the main measure of organic compound in water, known as COD) levels of as much as 100,000.
A COD reading, in basic terms, shows how much pollution there is in water.
Mr Towers said the COD level would have to be “bashed down” to 4000 to pass Hunter Water standards for disposal in the sewer which was “extremely difficult under the circumstances”.
Another worker said the EPA spent years “fiddling around the edges” trying to make the company clean up its act.
“Despite its legacy of spills, leaks and breaches, they were allowed to continue operating,” he said.
“We never really understood why it wasn’t shut down.”
Another former employee said he sent an email to the EPA after leaving the company detailing the illegal liquid waste dumping, but he never heard anything back.
“It had my name, number and they had my email address, but I never heard from them,” he said.
“I told them about the dumping and the dead trees, it was like they didn't want to know.”
Everything changed in September, 2016, when the company was forced into liquidation seven months after it was caught discharging PFAS chemicals, up to nearly 400 times the accepted health risk limit, into the sewer.
Hunter Water took the unprecedented step of disconnecting the plant from its sewer network which sparked the company’s downfall.
Further investigations revealed PFAS up to 10,000 times the accepted health risk level, in multiple storage tanks at the Rutherford refinery. It is still there.
Despite the discovery of up to 700,000 litres - or one-third the size of an Olympic swimming pool - of wastewater with high PFAS levels found at the refinery, the company claimed it had no idea where it came from.
The EPA told Fairfax Media at the time, the site was being actively monitored and the watchdog was “reviewing our regulatory options to ensure the ongoing maintenance and security of the site”.
More than a year later heavy rain saw storage tanks overflow and PFAS was found in nearby waterways prompting bans on the use of produce from surrounding farms.
An EPA warning to residents not to eat eggs, drink milk or consume meat from animals that have had access to Fishery or Wallis creeks remains in place after the toxic chemicals, as high as 22 times the recommended drinking water guideline, were found in Stony Creek.
The Herald attempted to speak to several landowners from along the creek, but was told producers do not wish to weigh in for fear of damaging land values and business prospects.
Former Truegain workers told the Herald there were problems with storage tanks foaming up at the refinery “long before” the Hunter Water investigation and while the illegal dumping was taking place.
Several said when they asked about it, they were told it was caused by truck and bus wash.
Another recalled a worker driving around the plant, after Hunter Water detected PFAS at the site, emptying bulk containers of wastewater onto the ground.
“He would open the nozzle a bit and just drive around and around until it was gone,” an employee said.
“Then go and get another one. Over and over.”
Another said: “That PFAS wouldn't be through the natural waterways in Maitland if it was not for Australian Waste Oil. I believe that.”
An EPA spokeswoman said that Enviropacific Services had been issued an environment protection licence to manage the PFAS contaminated wastewater contained in bunds and tanks on site.
“As is the case with any pollution or site contamination matters, the EPA applies the polluter pays principle,” she said.
“Therefore the EPA is requiring the site owner to clean up the premises. This has been delayed by the liquidation of Truegain, but the EPA continues to progress the matter.”
Read Part 2 of this Newcastle Herald investigative series on Monday.