The state's environmental watchdog is planning to prosecute the owner of a former Hunter waste oil refinery site that was left to rot after being ground zero for years worth of toxic waste being dumped on the ground and in waterways.
News of the Environmental Protection Authority's possible legal action came as NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean visited the Truegain site at Rutherford for the first time on Friday.
Mr Kean told the Newcastle Herald after touring the abandoned plant that the EPA would pursue Bob Pullinger - landowner and former Truegain director - in an effort to force him to pay for the long overdue clean-up of the site.
But Labor' state member for Maitland Jenny Aitchison urged the government to fund the remediation immediately and chase Mr Pullinger for the money.
While Mr Kean on Friday stopped short of saying the government would step-in now to clean-up the site, he said what he saw at the Kyle Street property was "appalling", saying it had been left "in a state of disrepair".
"He's basically run off with the profits and left the community to pay for it, it's totally unacceptable," he said.
"We're currently going through a process to ensure the materials contained on the site are being kept in a safe manner.
"Once we've finished that work, we'll be putting in the systems and processes to deal with it.
"It is an ongoing task that the EPA is undertaking. We want to ensure we protect the community's health and protect the environment."
- Your Right to Know: Taxpayers face clean-up bill for Truegain's environmental nightmare
- Your Right To Know: Documents reveal the extent of Newcastle East Public School's asbestos contamination crisis
- Your Right to Know: What government bureaucrats don't want you to know
- Your Right to Know: Kicked, punched, spat on: the violence in Hunter hospitals
Mr Kean said the likely legal action was about enforcing the polluter pays model.
"It's unacceptable that the community should have to bear the cost," he said.
"We're working through the legal avenues to ensure the individual is held to account."
The minister's visit comes amid an ongoing investigation by the Newcastle Herald into the years of contamination in which millions of litres of toxic material was pumped into the environment by Truegain, also known as Australian Waste Oil Refineries.
Heavy metals, hydrocarbons and PFAS - the substance at the centre of the Williamtown Red Zone scandal - have been found in the environment near the former Truegain site.
PFAS has been found at levels as high as 22 times the recommended drinking water guideline in Stony Creek, a waterway that flows into the Hunter River.
The company went into liquidation in 2016 with debts of almost $6 million, including $1.38 million owed to workers.
There is still two million litres of PFAS-contaminated water stored in ageing tanks at the site.
A June 2019 Contamination Assessment Report, obtained by the Herald under freedom of information laws, notes the premises is "known to be in poor repair, with cracks to hardstand areas and questions over the integrity of bunds currently containing contaminated liquids".
The report said the condition of the 60,000 litre underground storage tank was unknown.
"As the tank currently holds large volumes of contaminated liquids and would have held liquids during the periods when the site was operating, any leaks to the tank are a potential source of contamination to soil and groundwater at depth," the document said.
The Herald reported earlier this week that Mr Pullinger has told the EPA he has run out of money and claims he is financially unable to clean-up the site.
EPA chief executive officer Tracy Mackey said yesterday that consultants had been on site - they were there on Friday - conducting an audit.
She said the consultants were testing the structural integrity of all tanks and bunds as well as what is inside them.
Ms Mackey said the firm was then expected to deliver a report - a "comprehensive piece of work" - at the end of this month which would guide the next steps.
"There will be different ways of remediating the site based on what we need to do with that particular waste," she said.
"Part of what we'll do once we get the detailed report from the consultants that are currently on site is we'll come up with a plan of what would be the appropriate steps to remediate the site and ensure no further contamination.
"Once we've got that, the government will consider what options are available."
IN OTHER NEWS:
- Cost of Newcastle light rail rides up nearly $1 in NSW fare changes
- Kicked, punched, head-butted and spat on: Hunter hospital staff say assaults are under-reported
- Former Knight wins negligence claim over botched knee surgery that ended his career
- Hunter job market performing better than most after May lift
The Herald understands the report could also serve as expert evidence in legal proceedings.
"There's an investigation that may ultimately result in legal action," Ms Mackey said.
"The particular charges haven't been defined as these will be determined based on the outcome of the investigation.
"Part of what we're looking at is whether he has complied with the clean-up notice that was issued back in 2018."
Ms Mackey said the EPA was also focused on ensuring there were no further pollution events caused by the former waste oil refinery.
"We are closely monitoring the site, particularly following rainfall, to ensure there is no overflow," she said.
"The EPA arranges for pumping and removal of contaminated stormwater from the site, after rain, as needed, to prevent overflow."
Ms Mackey said the EPA had been watching Mr Pullinger from the beginning, after he began running the business before obtaining the relevant licence.
"We've got pages and pages of compliance action against him," she said.
"He's been prosecuted and convicted. He's had a plethora of penalty infringement notices."
Maitland MP Jenny Aitchison said the government should step in and fund the remediation of the Truegain site immediately and pursue Mr Pullinger for payment.
"[The minister is] still trying to progress the idea of waiting for the polluter to pay and we know [Mr Pullinger] will string this out as long as he can," she said.
"This government gave a commitment nine years ago to fix the Rutherford stink, they failed to do that through the EPA because of ineptitude and now they've let this PFAS and other toxic chemicals just sit there for four years.
"They've got to step in and clean it up now. We can't wait another two, three, four years for their inaction."
Rob Schelle, who has worked at a neighbouring business since 2003, told the Herald of the "instant headache" that would sometimes strike when heavy emissions were coming from the Truegain site.
On one occasion, about a decade ago, he said he was down the back of his workplace with colleagues and found oil running through the drains that passed the property.
"When you saw a puff of white smoke out of that stack, that's when you took off," he said.
"It was terrible. You couldn't breathe. Sometimes it was just constant, the smell coming out of this place.
"When we complained, nothing ever happened about it."
The Newcastle Herald has repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, attempted to contact Mr Pullinger for comment on the matter since 2018.