Decades of dumping toxic waste by waste-oil refinery

Illegal waste - DecipherWaste
Waste & Landfill

Decades of dumping toxic waste by waste-oil refinery

Newcastle Herald investigation can reveal that Truegain Pty Ltd, also known as Australian Waste Oil Refineries (AWOR), pumped vast quantities of a chemical cocktail polluting creeks that run to the Hunter River.

The contamination dates back to the 1990s.

Truegain was also dumping the notorious contaminant per- and poly-fluoroalkyl [PFAS] into Maitland’s sewer and the toxic firefighting chemicals – at the heart of the Williamtown’s ‘red zone’ environmental scandal – have been detected in extremely high levels in a creek behind the refinery.

As the effort continues to contain the heavily contaminated site, dozens of former workers have told how the company would routinely use its Rutherford plant and surrounding waterways as a dumping ground for waste collected from across NSW, Canberra and Victoria – though one former company director the Herald was able to reach denied the claims.

Former workers, who described the operation as “ultra shonky”, said rather than treat all the waste brought to the Kyle Street refinery, 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 or pumped to nearby Stony Creek.

They just used to put it straight down the side drain or down the back, it happened all the time

“They just used to put it straight down the side drain or down the back, it happened all the time,” a former employee said.

“Most of us had families and mortgages, it was a terrible situation to be put in.”

Large hoses would be connected to storage tanks and liquid pumped down a stormwater drain on Maitland City Council land along the eastern boundary of the property, or from storage tanks at the rear of the plant: all to avoid the cost of paying for “expensive” treatment chemicals and to give the appearance that the company was meeting limits for discharge into Maitland’s sewer system.

As a result, a huge quantity of prohibited chemicals made their way into Stony Creek that leads to the Hunter River.

To avoid detection, Truegain took advantage of its 24-hour operating licence, flushing at night, and during times of heavy rain.

Philip Towers, who worked at the refinery for more than a decade and refused to have anything to do with the illegal dumping, said the pollution of waterways around the plant was “no accident”.

“It was deliberately done, all to save money,” he said. “I remember 160,000 litres of dirty water went missing one weekend. When I left on Friday it was there and when I came back on Monday it was gone.”

But a former company director denied the practice when contacted by the Herald.

“Whatever we discharged was discharged in an appropriate manner,” said the former director, who was on site three to four times a week.

“I would not only have not seen it, but would not have allowed it.”

The organisation was made up of two companies – Truegain dealt with contaminated water while Australian Waste Oil Refineries handled waste oil and processed fuel.

It promoted itself as an environmental champion that primarily recycled waste lube oil.

But in reality, the ageing Rutherford plant lacked maintenance, struggled to cope in times of rain and illegal dumping and accidental spills were commonplace.

Barry Grant, one of more than 35 former workers who spoke to the Herald, spent 12 years at the refinery and said workers didn’t speak out because they couldn’t afford to lose their jobs and didn’t want to be responsible for their co-workers ending up unemployed.

“There was a lot of under the table stuff going on, but I kept away from it,” he said. “It was unfortunately an ongoing thing.”

According to a former supervisor, the company would fool inspectors by pouring milk into storage tanks so it looked like chemicals were being added as part of a treatment process.

Several employees said the company got away with flushing “vast amounts” of toxic wastewater down Maitland’s sewer through a bypass system installed to circumvent the discharge water meter.

Jeff Gayford, who worked at the refinery for a decade, said the Rutherford site was so badly contaminated when trucks drove into the plant during rain oil would ooze up through cracks in the concrete.

“The whole place was one big problem,” he said.

Workers described a “culture of fear” at the refinery and said there was a high “churn” rate of staff.

“I worked for the company for seven or eight years and I’m pretty sure it’s been happening the whole time,” another employee said.

“The employees didn’t really know what was in the stuff they were handling. You get put in a position where you feel like you didn’t have a choice.”

SHUTDOWN: The NSW Envfironment Protection Authority revoked Truegain's licence in 2018 after Hunter Water detected it was released toxic firefighting foam chemicals into Maitland's sewer. Picture: Johnathan Carroll

 SHUTDOWN: The NSW Envfironment Protection Authority revoked Truegain’s licence in 2018 after Hunter Water detected it was released toxic firefighting foam chemicals into Maitland’s sewer. Picture: Johnathan Carroll

Former employee Craig Burgess said Truegain would take waste from “every and anywhere” as long as there was “a dollar in it”.

“It didn’t matter what it was, they’d take anything they could get their hands on for money,” he said.

“It was an exceptionally dodgy operation and the place was always falling apart.”

Added to the illegal waste stream was “whatever was in the back of trucks” that workers saw siphoned onto the ground, instead of being pumped into storage tanks, when the plant was nearing capacity.


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