IN a NSW first, Environment Minister Matt Kean has ordered an immediate clean-up of the trouble-plagued former Truegain waste-oil refinery site at Rutherford.
The Newcastle Herald can reveal that Mr Kean has stepped into the long-running stoush between former Truegain director and owner of the site, Robert Pullinger, and the Environment Protection Authority, slapping a prohibition order on the abandoned site this week.
The move means waste or substances that "pose a risk to the environment or human health" can no longer be stored at the Kyle St industrial site, effective immediately.
It is the first time a NSW environment minister has issued a prohibition notice.
Mr Kean, who visited the site in June, said he was appalled at the way it had been left.
"The owner of this site has been given ample opportunities to fix this mess, but now enough is enough, it's time we use every power we have to protect the environment and the local community," Mr Kean said.
"After seeing it for myself, it is clear the Truegain site has been left in a terrible mess and it needs to be cleaned up."
The EPA has been battling for years to get the heavily-contaminated site remediated.
There is still more than two million litres of toxic firefighting foam wastewater, up to 10,000 times the accepted health risk level, in multiple storage tanks at the Rutherford refinery, including an underground tank that regularly overflows during heavy rain.
Dangerous levels of toxic firefighting foam and cancer-causing chemicals have also been found in groundwater below the site.
It's unknown how far the shifting plume has spread.
Mr Kean said numerous opportunities had been afforded the owner, including as recently as last month, to provide submissions to the EPA in relation to the site and about the prohibition notice.
It's understood Mr Pullinger has told the EPA he has run out of money and claims he is financially unable to clean-up the site.
Non-compliance with the notice, which requires removal of all stored waste, is expected to result in prosecution by the EPA.
"I want to make sure the community can have confidence that sites are properly maintained and rehabilitated and that all necessary action is taken to prioritise the health of the community and protection of the environment," Mr Kean said.
The minister's action comes amid an ongoing investigation by the Newcastle Heraldwhich revealed millions of litres of toxic waste collected from across Australia has been secretly pumped into creeks or dumped on the ground over decades by the Maitland waste-oil refinery company.
Truegain, also know as Australian Waste Oil Refineries (AWOR), pumped vast quantities of a chemical cocktail to nearby Stony Creek that runs to the Hunter River.
The contamination dates back to the 1990s.
The company 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 red zone environmental scandal - have been detected, at levels as high as 22 times the recommended drinking water guideline, in Stony Creek behind the refinery.
An EPA warning to residents not to eat eggs, drink milk or consume meat from animals that have had access to Fishery, Stony or Wallis creeks remains in place.
The company went into liquidation in 2016 with debts of almost $6 million, including $1.38 million owed to workers.
Maitland Labor MP Jenny Aitchison said forcing the owner to act is what the community has wanted for decades.
Ms Aitchison has previously urged the government to fund the remediation immediately and chase Mr Pullinger for the money.
"We want this site cleaned up so it's no longer a risk to the environment, surrounding businesses and the community," she said.
"We need to see this through to completion and ensure the waste is removed in a legal and safe way.
"The initial closure of the plant came via action from Hunter Water, not the EPA, it's imperative that the EPA acts on this and they enforce it so the site gets cleaned up."
Resident Ramona Cocco, who has campaigned against the refinery for more than 20 years, said it was "about time" action was taken.
Mrs Cocco, who met with Mr Kean on site in June, said the minister had kept his word.
"It would be nice to actually see something done and finalised," she said.
"It's long overdue. In saying that, the minister listened to us, took what we said on board and promised to take action.
"It's nice to see he has kept his word, but this is long overdue.
"It needs to be finalised and finalised quickly because this has been going on for far too many years and the community deserves better."
Dozens of former refinery workers and subcontractors told the Newcastle Herald how the company would routinely use the Rutherford plant and surrounding waterways as a dumping ground for waste collected from across NSW, Canberra and Victoria.
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.
To avoid detection, Truegain took advantage of its 24-hour operating licence, flushing at night, and during times of heavy rain.
The organisation was made up of two companies - Truegain dealt with contaminated water while Australian Waste Oil Refineries (AWOR) 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.
The EPA has issued 18 penalty notices and successfully prosecuting Truegain twice in the NSW Land and Environment Court.
The environmental watchdog suspended Truegain's environment protection licence in 2016 after it was caught by Hunter Water discharging PFAS chemicals, up to nearly 400 times the accepted health risk limit, into the sewer.
Truegain's licence was revoked by the EPA in January 2018 and Mr Pullinger was ordered to remove all liquid from the premises' spill containment system and lawfully dispose of it, and then do so again within 48 hours of any rainfall event.
But treating the contaminated wastewater stopped at the abandoned site in April last year.
Since then the EPA has been forced to monitor and pump out the storage tanks following heavy rain to ensure toxic chemicals do not further pollute nearby properties and waterways.
The heavily contaminated refinery is renowned for flooding and last month large sections of the plant were underwater.
Mr Kean said the EPA was monitoring the condition of the site and arranging for removal and lawful disposal of contaminated wastewater as needed to prevent any discharge.
In March 2018, when the site was being monitored by the EPA, there was a major spill of PFAS water into Stony Creek following heavy rain.
A Newcastle Herald investigation revealed that EPA inspectors warned of a threat of the spill for almost a year, but the regulator failed to prevent it.
Truegain also had a storage site at St Marys, in Sydney, that was raided by Penrith City Counci in November 2015 uncovering major contamination issues.
Council inspectors found toxic firefighting foam, shipping containers full of used oil filters, 300,000 litres of oil sludge, 40,000 litres of grease, 16 tonnes of contaminated soil and 90,000 litres of oil contaminated water.
A Penrith City Council spokesman described the property as "high risk". He said Truegain was ordered to immediately cease operations and a clean-up notice issued. The site was eventually sold and remediated by the new owner.
Workers said Truegain trucks plied back and forth between St Marys and Rutherford for more than a decade hiding waste the company did not want authorities to find during planned inspections.
EPA chief executive officer Tracy Mackey said in June that consultants had been on site conducting an audit. She said the consultants were testing the structural integrity of all tanks and bunds as well as what is inside them.
The Newcastle Herald has repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, attempted to contact Mr Pullinger for comment on the matter since 2018.
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