GREATER powers for NSW's environmental watchdog, sparked by the fight against toxic pollution from Maitland's Truegain waste oil refinery, are a step closer to being enshrined in law.
The Environment Legislation Amendment Bill 2021 passed the Lower House on Wednesday with the support of all sides of politics.
Introduced by former Environment Minister Matt Kean last year, the raft of changes will increase penalties for offences and give the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) greater powers to pursue polluters.
If passed by the Upper House, the laws will allow the EPA to chase current and former company directors, managers and related companies for environmental offences.
Landowner and former Truegain director, Bob Pullinger, has side-stepped a mass clean-up of the industrial site and declared bankruptcy.
The NSW government has been forced to step in and will spend more than $20 million cleaning up the heavily contaminated Kyle St site.
Speaking in support of the bill on Wednesday, Ms Aitchison described how she got involved in the battle against the refinery eight years ago, before she was elected to parliament, when several people were overcome by fumes at a nearby business.
She conducted a survey in the area and more than 200 people responded detailing concerns about the "Rutherford stink" that was emanating from the plant.
"They told me about going outside to their cars in the morning and finding a thick, sticky residue of pollution and toxic material on their cars that they would have to wash off before they could get in it," she said.
"People spoke of being woken up in the middle of the night to a thick stench coming through their bedroom window that they couldn't sleep with their windows open."
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 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.
"Polluters thrive under the cover of darkness and secrecy. The lack of resources, transparency and accountability of the EPA in recent years has allowed them to flourish," Ms Aitchison said.
"It has only been through consistent and thorough coverage by the Maitland Mercury and the Newcastle Herald that the polluters at Truegain have been held to account."
Shadow Environment spokeswoman Kate Washington called on the government to properly resource the EPA so it could make full use of the new powers.
"When I say these changes are long overdue, I mean it," she said.
The amendments will allow the EPA to not only take action against the drivers of trucks used for illegal dumping, but also prosecute vehicle owners.
Ms 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.
"There is also something missing from this debate that disturbs me...," she said. "There was no mention made of one of the most significant pollution events in this state. An event that has caused incalculable harm to hundreds of people's properties and lives for the past six-and-a-half years."
Ms Washington said Williamtown residents had been "promised solutions" by the NSW government that it never had "any intention of delivering".
She called on the government to uphold its polluter pays model and take action against the Department of Defence for polluting innocent residents' properties around Williamtown RAAF Base.
"It signals this government is not going to do anything to protect those innocent victims of pollution," she said. "Where their private land and their lives have been polluted."
IN THE NEWS:
Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. This is how you can continue to access our trusted content:
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.