THE NSW environment watchdog is being charged with “sitting back and watching” a major chemical spill unfold at Truegain's abandoned Rutherford waste-oil refinery that saw toxic firefighting chemicals pollute a Maitland creek that runs to the Hunter River.
A Newcastle Herald investigation can reveal that the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) knew there was a threat of the spill for almost a year, but failed to prevent it.
EPA inspectors repeatedly visited the incident-plagued site over 18 months after Truegain went into liquidation in September 2016.
Clearly unimpressed with what they found, inspectors detailed a host of pollution concerns and warned a spill was likely.
It was on the seventh inspection, on March 21, this year, almost a year after its own staff raised the threat of a spill at the vacant site, that a major breach was discovered following heavy rain.
The plant's spill containment system - previously found to contain high levels of the notorious contaminant per- and poly-fluoroalkyl [PFAS] at the heart of the Williamtown environmental scandal - had leaked and flowed to nearby Stony Creek.
An EPA warning to residents followed, and remains in place, not to eat eggs, drink milk or consume meat from animals that have had access to Fishery or Wallis creeks after toxic PFAS chemicals, as high as 22 times the recommended drinking water guideline, were found in Stony Creek.
Now the question residents are asking is: how did it ever come to this?
They blame the EPA for “being asleep at the wheel” and failing to ensure the site was contained after it was abandoned by Truegain.
Rutherford resident Ramona Cocco said she found it “impossible to believe” that the environmental watchdog knew there was a risk of a spill and allowed it to happen.
“The EPA has dragged their feet on this, they watched it unfold and did nothing to stop it,” she said.
“They knew that there was a big chance of a leak and now the creeks are polluted.
“Surely more could have been done to protect the environment, it just beggars belief. It’s like they stuck their heads in the sand and just hoped it would go away.”
Even the EPA found it hard to defend its lack of action, choosing not to answer questions about how the spill was allowed to happen almost a year after its own officers raised concerns it was a threat.
The regulator also declined to answer if any penalty had been issued for the pollution. Searches conducted of the regulator’s online penalty notice register found none.
The watchdog’s lack of action was “astounding”, according Mrs Cocco. “I don’t understand why they are so hesitant to act.”
The EPA’s spokeswoman referred back to action taken against Truegain when it was operating, which included 18 penalty notices and successfully prosecuting the company twice in the Land and Environment Court.
“Under the NSW government polluter pays principle, the landowner has contracted an EPA-licensed mobile waste treatment plant to treat contaminated water on the Truegain site,” she said.
“Further investigations of site contamination are continuing, including soil and groundwater testing.”
Truegain’s atrocious environmental record, exposed by a Herald investigation in November, included oil and liquid waste dumping into surrounding waterways and properties dating back decades.
More than 40 former workers have spoken out about what they witnessed while working for the company, also known as Australian Waste Oil Refineries, detailing how vast quantities of a chemical cocktail were pumped into creeks that run to the Hunter River.
The company’s downfall was triggered when it was caught discharging PFAS into Maitland’s sewage system and Hunter Water disconnected it in February 2016. Truegain went into liquidation seven months later and abandoned the site.
A legal clean-up notice was slapped on the Kyle St environmental hotspot by the EPA in June 2017, but it was a failure.
The notice detailed a host of pollution concerns at the site.
On three separate days in September 2016, EPA inspectors found bund walls, designed to capture oil and water spills, on four tank farms leaking, the southern tank farm was covered in “what appeared to be” waste oil, the underground wastewater storage tank was full and hydrocarbon contaminated water covered internal roads and had flooded the main building.
Several weeks later, inspectors returned to discover diesel, oil and PFAS “well above relevant assessment criteria” in the plant's spill containment system.
Things got worse on March 2, 2017, when they found roadways at the plant covered in “black material” up to 10mm thick. An assessment made by the EPA on April 5, 2017, was simple.
PFAS and other chemicals, stored in huge volumes at the plant, were at risk of leaking from the spill containment system “to the environment, including nearby watercourses, in a rainfall event”.
On June 5, 2017, the company was given 18 days by the EPA to remove all liquid from the spill containment system and directed to ensure it was emptied 48 hours after rain.
But the spill threat was allowed the linger. A huge downpour in March, 2018, saw the breach that polluted Stony Creek and resulted in the PFAS warning and restrictions issued to farmers and landowners.
Man-made PFAS chemicals have been described as “virtually indestructible” in the environment.
The EPA's failure to prevent the spill from happening has angered local residents and Maitland MP Jenny Aitchison, who believe it is a case of the under-resourced regulator “simply not doing enough”.
Ms Aitchison said this was “more terrible evidence” of the government’s “total failure” to protect the community from the contamination at the Truegain site.
When asked why the state government did not act to warn residents about the potential PFAS contamination until the pollution was detected, even though the EPA identified the risk a year earlier, a spokesman for NSW Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton argued residents were warned.
In a statement to the Herald, Ms Upton’s office said Hunter Water first warned residents about contamination in the area in February, 2016, when Truegain was disconnected from the sewer.
Ms Upton’s office also referred back to the EPA’s successful prosecutions but did not comment on why the environmental watchdog did not issue a warning to nearby residents or the broader community.
Ms Aitichson said four successive environment ministers had failed to address the pollution risk from Truegain and Minister Upton “must go”.
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