THE NSW government has introduced to Parliament sweeping changes to environmental laws in a bid to make polluters more accountable, revealing it will be forced to spend $20 million cleaning up Truegain's legacy at Rutherford.
The proposed raft of amendments, introduced by Environment Minister Matt Kean this week, will increase penalties for offences and give the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) greater powers to pursue polluters.
The changes would allow the EPA to chase current and former company directors, managers and related companies for environmental offences.
Aimed at breaking through "unscrupulous business models" and curbing "criminal behaviour", the laws pave the way for authorities to chase related entities and individuals if companies go into liquidation and walk away from contaminated sites
Landowner and former Truegain director, Bob Pullinger, has side-stepped a mass clean-up of the industrial site claiming he has run out of money. The EPA is pursing debt recovery action against Mr Pullinger through the courts.
More than 40 former workers told how the company would routinely use the property and surrounding waterways as a dumping ground for waste collected from industrial yards, airports, service stations, mines and car washes.
"The NSW government has already incurred over $10 million to prevent toxic contaminated groundwater from leaving the site and entering waterways after it's owner claimed not to have the financial capacity to manage the site," Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment Felicity Wilson said on Thursday.
"The government will now have to spend an additional $10 million to remediate the site."
Under the changes, the EPA would have the power to require financial assurances from individuals and entities, and access operator funds, in an effort to ensure the government is not left footing massive clean-up bills.
"It is time our environment protection laws are updated to address evolving criminal behaviours, new and emerging environmental issues, and to ensure that they continue to set robust penalties and enforcement powers that are effective at preventing, enforcing, managing and remediating environmental crimes," Ms Wilson said.
"As a consequence of changing criminal behaviours, there are businesses and individuals knowingly breaking the law to profit from their crimes."
The Environment Legislation Amendment Bill 2021 is expected to be debated when Parliament resumes in February.
Maitland MP Jenny Aitchison, who has campaigned for years against Truegain, said it was great to hear something was finally happening.
"It's a shame it has taken so long and I will be looking at the detail of this bill to try and make sure that it really works to protect our communities from polluters," she said.
The government pointed to the mess left behind by Truegain as one of the main drivers for the changes and referenced issues faced by Millers Forest resident Michael Corling who was fighting a potential clean-up bill of $1 million after asbestos contamination was dumped on his property without his knowledge.
The amendments would allow the EPA to not only take action against the drivers of trucks used for illegal dumping, but also prosecute vehicle owners.
"In the last three years alone, these changing criminal behaviours have resulted in the government or innocent landholders being left with substantial clean-up costs with one site costing the NSW government $20 million," Ms Wilson said.
"The bill will ensure that businesses that set up and then dissolve companies to deflect accountability, pay for their crimes and their clean up, it will increase penalty amounts to deter criminal activity and reflect the true cost of those crimes.
"It will expand regulator powers and enforcement tools to ensure that those who are responsible for the pollution, clean it up and manage it into the future."
Changes introduced in July 2019 to split the EPA's most senior role into two, will be formalised.
The agency's chair and chief executive will officially be separated into two positions and new board appointments will include experts in human health and Aboriginal cultural values.
Shadow environment minister Kate Washington said she was shocked that fire fighting foam chemicals, or PFAS, at the centre of the Williamtown contamination scandal, was not mentioned in the amendments.
"Local families continue to live with PFAS polluting their properties and lives, and yet it's clearly not even on the NSW government's radar," she said.
"Before the bill is debated in Parliament, I urge the minister to consult with communities polluted by PFAS."
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