THE NSW Environment Protection Authority has launched prosecution and debt-recovery action against Truegain site owner Robert Pullinger in a bid to recoup $1.178 million it has spent trying to contain pollution at the heavily-contaminated refinery.
The Newcastle Herald can reveal that the environmental watchdog has launched prosecution in the Land and Environment Court alleging Mr Pullinger has failed to comply with legal obligations.
Mr Pullinger, who owns the site and was a director of Truegain before it went into liquidation in 2016, has allegedly refused to produce records, documents and other information required by EPA notices.
The EPA is also seeking $1,178,940 it has been forced to spend on cleaning up and managing stormwater and wastewater at the abandoned Rutherford waste-oil refinery that is renowned for flooding in heavy rain.
Environment Minister Matt Kean slapped a prohibition order on the Kyle St plant in August, requiring Mr Pullinger to immediately stop storing waste and other substances at the site. It has so far been ignored.
"The site's owner has had numerous opportunities to clean up his act, so far he has done nothing," Mr Kean said.
"I've inspected these premises myself and it's clear we need to use every power we have to make sure those responsible are held accountable for their actions."
The legal action 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 large volumes at the plant and in the surrounding environment.
It is estimated there are still two million litres of PFAS-contaminated water stored in rusting tanks at the site and PFAS has been found 22 times the recommended drinking water guideline in Stony Creek behind the plant.
An EPA warning to residents not to eat eggs, drink milk or consume meat from animals that have had access to Fishery, Wallis and Stony creeks remains in place.
According to an EPA report, Stony Creek - which connects to Fishery and Wallis creeks, which run to the Hunter River - is home to "various fish, eels and other sensitive ecological receptors". The creeks are used for recreational fishing and by farmers for irrigation.
Mr Pullinger has been ordered to remove all liquid waste from the premises' spill containment system and lawfully dispose of it, and then do so again within 48 hours of rain.
But after he abandoned a clean-up operation in April last year, claiming he had run out of money, the EPA has been forced to monitor the site and pump out storage tanks after rain.
A company called Glowbye and Mr Pullinger are listed as joint owners of the 1.65-hectare site that was purchased in 1993 for $55,000.
The Herald was unable to contact Mr Pullinger, who has never spoken publicly since before Truegain, estimated in 2008 to be worth $60 million annually to the Lower Hunter economy, went into liquidation in September 2016 with debts of almost $6 million, including $1.38 million owed to workers.
Testing has revealed PFAS levels in existing groundwater wells on the site exceed drinking water and recreational guidelines.
Copper, nickel and zinc were detected in groundwater above recommended guidelines.
A full assessment of contamination at the site is yet to be carried out as the EPA found significant failings in a report paid for by Mr Pullinger.
Central shortcomings included limited testing of soil and groundwater in areas of the property where the refinery operated, no analysis of groundwater flow, little off-site testing and failure to investigate a contaminated perched aquifer and potentially "ongoing sources of contamination".
Maitland MP Jenny Aitchison said the Liberal government had had a decade to clean up the environmental disaster.
"What's going to happen if a hole bursts in one of the tanks, we know as recently as last week the site is being targeted by thieves and vandals," she said.
"We need the government to urgently commit to cleaning up this site, before the ongoing cost of trying to contain it dwarfs the actual clean-up bill."
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