FORMER Truegain waste-oil refinery director and site owner Robert Pullinger has pleaded guilty to not complying with an Environment Protection Authority investigation and providing false information.
Pullinger, who has refused to talk publicly since the Rutherford refinery went into liquidation after it was caught releasing toxic firefighting chemicals into the sewer, will be sentenced later this month in a Sydney local court on two charges brought by the state's environmental watchdog.
The 71-year-old former police officer represented himself during the proceedings in December last year.
He will also face the Land and Environment Court on Friday charged with failing to comply with a prohibition notice in relation to the abandoned Kyle St industrial site and two counts of failing to comply with a clean-up notice.
The charges follow a long-running investigation by the Newcastle Herald that revealed in 2018 that Truegain, also known as Australian Waste Oil Refineries, secretly pumped millions of litres of toxic waste into nearby creeks or dumped it on the ground over decades.
More than 40 former workers told how the company would routinely use its Rutherford plant and surrounding waterways as a dumping ground for waste collected from industrial yards, Williamtown RAAF base, airports, service stations, mines and car washes.
One of the Hunter's most contaminated sites, it still contains more than two million litres of firefighting chemicals in ageing storage tanks and other industrial waste that poses a risk to human health and the environment, and now stands open to the public after vandals cut a large hole in the front fence several weeks ago.
Resident Ramona Cocco, who has campaigned for decades against Truegain, said she found it "unbelievable" that anyone could just walk in "off the street".
"It's clearly dangerous and I have no idea why the government is allowing it to remain the way it is," she said.
"They have been sitting on their hands for decades on this issue and at each turn it just gets more and more ridiculous and nothing gets done."
Police have been called to the trouble-plagued site 38 times since 2015 and the EPA 29 times for spills and odour complaints.
Responding to questions in parliament from Maitland MP Jenny Aitchison, via shadow minister for industry and trade Mick Veitch, the government said most of the police incidents related to "break and enter and stealing".
The Kyle St site includes a disused chemical laboratory and millions of litres of wastewater contaminated with PFAS chemicals - at the heart of the Williamtown red zone environmental scandal - stored in ageing tanks that regularly overflow into a spill containment area.
In November, the EPA launched debt recovery proceedings against Pullinger in a bid recoup $1,178,940 it has spent cleaning up and managing wastewater to ensure there are no further leaks to nearby Stony Creek.
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 - that run to the Hunter River - remains in place after PFAS chemicals, as high as 22 times the recommended drinking water guideline, were found in Stony Creek.
Fire and Rescue NSW's hazardous materials experts have regularly been called to the site for spills.
In November, EPA staff called police and fire crews after discovering a break-in at the disused laboratory.
Environment Minister Matt Kean slapped a prohibition order on the plant in August last year, requiring Pullinger to immediately stop storing waste and other substances at the site.
It was the first time a NSW environment minister issued a prohibition notice.
The EPA also wrote to Pullinger in November requesting him to take immediate action to secure and prevent unauthorised entry to the site, including the plant, office and laboratory.
The government said the EPA was "currently following up with Mr Pullinger".
Ms Aitchsion, who has been campaigning to have the site cleaned up, described it as "unacceptable" that anyone could access the refinery.
"Who knows what chemicals are in there that could pose a threat to people," she said.
"The hole in the fence is not a one-off incident, action has to be taken for the environment and the community.
"The cost of doing nothing will be much more in the future, we are talking about one of the most toxic sites in the Hunter."
Mr Kean stepped into the long-running stoush between Pullinger and the EPA after visiting the plant in June, describing what he saw at the property as "appalling".
"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," he said.
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