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IT'S a rusting, highly volatile mess that is brewing a second toxic onslaught underground.
Abandoned and left to rot.
Now a series of expert reports obtained by the Newcastle Herald reveal the first true picture of what's inside the derelict Truegain waste-oil refinery at Rutherford.
Strewn across the 1.6-hectare landscape are more than 75 large rusting metal tanks, several discarded truck tankers and scores of 1000-litre plastic storage containers, stacked three high in places, full of toxic waste.
It's estimated the storage tanks contain up to five million litres - or two Olympic swimming pools - of contaminated liquid.
A 2018 report by consultant GHD, listed the tanks as full of everything from sludge to bitumen, gas oil and diesel. The contents of many were recorded as "unknown".
Sampling reports from June last year, show the majority of tanks at the Kyle Street plant contain alarming levels of toxic fire fighting foam chemicals, or per- and poly-fluoralkyl substances [PFAS], at the heart of the Williamtown red zone scandal.
PFAS does not break down in the environment and has rendered water from three creeks linked to the Truegain plant permanently off-limits.
It has also been found in groundwater and soil at the site.
Despite years of campaigning by residents and Maitland MP Jenny Aitchison against the rogue company, which went into liquidation in 2016 with debts of almost $6 million, the site remains a hulking industrial sore.
Every hint of rain creates a new pollution threat.
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According to a NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) document, as little as 15mm of rain is enough for the site's heavily contaminated underground storage tank to overflow. That is assuming the tank was empty in the first place.
"When the underground wastewater tank exceeds its storage capacity polluted water collects on driveway areas and could ultimately discharge to an adjacent open storm water drain adjacent to the premises which connects with Stony Creek," an EPA document reads.
"There is also the potential for polluted water to seep into the ground through cracks and joins in the hardstand surfaces."
Global scientific consultancy AECOM, contracted by the EPA last year to assess the mess, found the maximum reading for the most toxic in the PFAS family of chemicals, perfluorooctane sulfonate or PFOS, was 3720 micrograms per litre in one tank.
The result was more than 50,000 times over the safe level for the chemical in drinking water and 5000 times over the safe level for the chemical in recreational water, at .07 and .7 micrograms per litre respectively.
EPA testing has also found PFAS levels above 50 micrograms per litre in the plant's cracked spill containment system, which must be pumped out regularly to prevent further major pollution events. PFAS chemicals are extremely mobile and have been linked to a host of serious illnesses.
According to AECOM, numerous tanks are leaking, others couldn't be assessed because they are submerged in toxic wastewater, several are "bulging at the bottom" and some sit high on rickety steel frames that are not even bolted to the ground.
The contents of numerous tanks weren't tested, simply listed as "too contaminated".
The clean-up bill, just to dispose of the liquid in the tanks, has been estimated by GHD at more than $10 million.
This week the Newcastle Herald revealed as part of an ongoing investigation into the contamination, that after years of heavy fire, the EPA has officially called for industry proposals to clean up the abandoned industrial site.
According to information supplied to businesses scoping the works, tanks at the refinery - large enough to flood the spill containment system - "may fail at any time".
"A risk assessment has been done for the site which showed access should be limited," an EPA document reads. "Gantries are in poor condition and may collapse and tanks may fail at anytime."
In June last year, AECOM reported that the ageing underground concrete storage tank - which holds 60,000 litres of wastewater - was overflowing and could not be inspected. Another report said the bottom of the tank was filled with sludge.
Nine concrete bunds, designed as a buffer to stop spills and dangerous chemicals seeping into the soil and groundwater, were listed as "obviously leaking to exterior", "cracked", not water proofed and parts of some walls were "missing".
For more than a decade the cracked bunds have allowed dangerous chemicals to ooze into the ground. According to GHD, a report from 2008 recommended cracks in the bunds required "rectification immediately". But nothing was done.
Eight years later, an EPA officer took note of the ongoing hazard recording a "number of seeps were observed" at numerous locations.
Following heavy rain, concrete roads, footpaths and bunds at the refinery have been found coated in thick "black material" up to 10mm thick. A site assessment by the owner's own environmental consultant several years ago, found groundwater pollution, attributed to the plant's waste.
Years of rain have washed an assortment of toxins into the soil and groundwater at the site and high levels of PFAS were detected in two of six wells on the property.
The wells range in depth from one metre to 13 metres below ground level. According to an EPA staffer, testing of groundwater and soil was not done in the main area where the refinery operated.
It's unknown how far the plume of contaminated groundwater has spread as no testing has been done.
"We don't know the status of the underground drains and tanks," an EPA staffer wrote earlier this month. "We know there is contamination in soil, but we don't know if the contamination is from the surface or an underground source."
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PACs), emitted from motor vehicles and other combustion sources, were found in one well. PACs are known to cause cancers in humans and laboratory animals.
A cocktail of zinc, copper and nickel at elevated levels were found in five wells and total recoverable hydrocarbons (TRH) in two wells.
The EPA said further testing of soil and groundwater was needed, describing efforts to date by the site owner as "very limited" and "may not be accurate".
Truegain, also known as Australian Waste Oil Refineries, employed up to 55 staff at any one time and was touted as being worth $60 million to the Lower Hunter economy each year. It promoted itself as an environmental champion that primarily recycled waste lube oil.
But in reality, the ageing plant lacked maintenance, struggled to cope in times of rain and illegal dumping and accidental spills were commonplace for decades. Former workers, who described the operation as "ultra shonky", said rather than treat all the waste, Truegain would dump products it had collected from industrial yards, airports, service stations, mines and car washes, especially if the plant was nearing capacity. Dirty, frothy, caustic-smelling or oily liquid waste would be flushed down drains, dumped on the ground or pumped 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 remains in place after PFAS chemicals, as high as 22 times the recommended drinking water guideline, were found in Stony Creek.
Workers fear the biggest pollution threat at the incident-plagued plant - that was issued 18 penalty notices and successfully prosecuted twice by the EPA in the Land and Environment Court - is still to be quantified, because it is underground.
One told how in the final days of the company's operations an employee drove around the plant emptying bulk containers of frothy wastewater, believed to be PFAS, straight onto the ground. "He would open the nozzle a bit and just drive around and around until it was gone," the former employee said. "Then go and get another one. Over and over."
Resident Ramona Cocco, who has been campaigning against the company for decades, said she feared future generations would be steeped in Truegain's toxins long after the plant was gone. "The whole thing needs to be cleaned up properly ," she said. "This has gone on too long and it can't be left to keep polluting."
An EPA officer visiting the plant earlier this month was overcome by fumes, prompting warnings from the watchdog that odours at the site "maybe indicating pipe corrosion" from a vapour recovery unit designed to lower emissions when the plant was operating.
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.
No budget has been set for the clean up and funding has not been approved. Industry proposals on how to tackle the clean were due this week.
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