MAITLAND'S Truegain waste-oil refinery, in NSW's Hunter Valley, produced millions of dollars in profits over decades.
It also produced an environmental nightmare big enough to leave three creeks indefinitely off limits and a shifting plume of groundwater contaminated with dangerous levels of toxic-firefighting foam and cancer-causing chemicals.
Now a Newcastle Herald investigation can reveal that the heavily-contaminated site could cost taxpayers millions to clean up as the owner looks set to cut his losses and walk away.
In a move slammed as "unbelievable" and "outrageous", the landowner and former Truegain director, Bob Pullinger, wants to side-step a mass clean-up of the Rutherford industrial site claiming he has run out of money.
Documents obtained under freedom of information laws reveal that there has been no serious attempt to assess potential risks from the heavily-contaminated site that is feared to be leaking into surrounding waterways and neighbouring properties.
EPA staff have repeatedly identified the threat of chemical leaks from the abandoned site, but no action has been taken.
The Kyle Street industrial site, renowned for flooding in heavy rain, is contaminated with high levels of PFAS chemicals - at the heart of the Williamtown red zone environmental scandal - heavy metals and dangerous hydrocarbons.
"The site is known to be in poor repair, with cracks to hardstand areas and questions over the integrity of the bunds currently containing contaminated liquids," an EPA staffer wrote in May last year.
"The current condition of the underground storage tank (capacity 60,000 litres) is unknown.
"As this tank currently holds large volumes of contaminated liquids and would have held liquids during the periods when the site was operating, any leaks to the tank is a potential source of contamination to soil and groundwater at depth."
The staffer's internal assessment stands in stark contrast to an EPA statement issued to the Newcastle Herald in May that claimed "contamination is currently contained on site".
The same EPA officer, attached to the regulator's Contaminated Land Management section, wrote a four-page report outlining serious shortcomings in a February 2019 environmental assessment of the site conducted by a consultant hired by the landowner.
The consultant found that the site was suitable for commercial or industrial land use.
But the EPA officer said the assessment failed to investigate key pollution concerns, including not recognising "potentially ongoing sources of contamination".
Central shortcomings in the assessment included limited testing of soil and groundwater in areas of the property where the refinery operated, no analysis of groundwater flow, little off-site testing and failure to investigate a contaminated perched aquifer.
It also found that testing wells, that revealed high levels of PFAS, were installed upgradient of suspected groundwater flow that is believed to be moving towards Stony Creek.
The consultant's report also failed to assess possible leaks to bunds and an underground storage tank which contain PFAS-contaminated liquid.
According to the EPA staffer, a "certified environmental consultant" should be commissioned to conduct a detailed assessment of the site to properly determine the impact of the contamination.
Despite that direction being officially issued to the landowner in June last year, it has never been acted on.
"The owner of the premises has reported to the EPA that they do not have the financial capacity for additional contaminated land assessments and clean-up," an EPA spokesman said.
"The EPA is investigating this claim and is actively investigating alternative options for clean-up and remediation of the site."
Truegain, also known as Australian Waste Oil Refineries, went into liquidation owing millions, releasing it from any legal or financial obligation to clean up the site.
Furious residents and Maitland MP Jenny Aitchison are calling for immediate action to ensure the site is cleaned up and taxpayers after not left holding the bill.
They also want a guarantee that the landowner - who made profits from decades of operating the refinery - is held responsible.
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, airports, service stations, mines and car washes.
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 toxic PFAS chemicals, as high as 22 times the recommended drinking water guideline, were found in Stony Creek.
"The EPA has let the community down again," Ms Aitchison said.
"One after another of successive failures to protect the environment and the health of our community.
"What are they going to do now, make the owner sell the property to help fund a clean-up? It would be a big amount of money that would be required to restore the site and where is that going to come from?"
Documents obtained by the Newcastle Herald under Government Information Public Access (GIPA) laws, reveal that there are still millions of litres of heavily contaminated PFAS water stored in ageing tanks at the troubled site.
A draft document put together by EPA staff in July last year in response to questions asked by the Newcastle Herald, shows that treating the contaminated wastewater secretly stopped in April last year.
"Water treatment at the site ceased on 18 April 2019 and the mobile treatment plant is currently being demobilised from the site," an EPA officer wrote in comment mode on the draft media response. "A significant amount of bund water now exists at the site which will likely also require treatment."
But the staffer's comments were deleted in the official response to the Herald, removing any indication that the multi-million dollar, first-stage clean-up operation at the site was in trouble and had ceased three months before.
This was despite the Herald asking for an "update of the mobile treatment plant on site", how many litres of PFAS water still needed to be treated and when the work was expected to be completed.
"The mobile PFAS treatment plant, operated by a contractor of the landowner, has treated approximately 1.8 million litres of water, with around two million litres stored in onsite tanks still to be treated," the official response reads.
Resident Ramona Cocco, who has campaigned for 22 years against the rogue company, said the EPA had kept the community "in the dark for decades".
"I don't think they were ever going to tell us that the clean-up had stopped," she said.
"They don't want the community to know what is going on there because it's a disgrace. They couldn't shut Truegain down when it was operating and now they can't get the clean-up right."
The waste-oil refinery has not operated since 2016 when it was caught by Hunter Water releasing toxic firefighting foam chemicals, or PFAS, into the sewer.
In March 2018, when the site was being monitored by the EPA, there was a major spill of PFAS water into Stony Creek following heavy rain.
A neighbouring worker told the Herald this week that the site "stunk" and regularly flooded towards the creek at the rear of the block.
"The place just reeks, it always has and even now that it's not in operation it's still potent," he said. "We are all wondering when something will actually be done about it, vandals have been in there stealing stuff and it seems to have just been left."
According to an EPA report, Stony Creek that connects to Fishery and Wallis Creeks - that run to the Hunter River - is home to "various fish, eels and other sensitive ecological receptors".
"These creeks are also used for recreational fishing and by local farmers as a source of water irrigation," it states.
The landowner's consultant report, completed in February last year and submitted to the EPA, conceded the site should be reported to the regulator under the Contaminated Land Management Act.
"Triggers for duty to report have been exceeded due to the exceedances of...[PFAS] criteria in groundwater samples collected during the assessment, as these concentrations exceed adopted criteria and are likely to remain above the criteria in the foreseeable future," the report reads.
Under Section 60 of the Act, landowners must notify the EPA as soon as practicable after becoming aware of the contamination, if the contamination meets certain criteria.
The EPA is then meant to ensure appropriate action is taken. More than a year after the consultant's recommendation, no action has been taken.
"The owner of the contaminated land and persons whose activities have resulted in contamination of land have a duty to report to the EPA," the report reads. "Reporting is required as soon as practical after the owner or polluter becomes aware of contamination which exceeds the trigger values."
A company called Glowbye and Mr Pullinger are listed as joint owners of the 1.65-hectare site that was purchased in 1993 for $55,000.
The Australian Securities and Investment Commission has launched strike-off action against Glowbye, controlled by Mr Pullinger, flagging the company for deregistration. The corporate regulator can strike off a company if payment of its annual review fees is overdue by more than 12 months or it fails to lodge required documents.
The Herald was unable to contact Mr Pullinger, who has never spoken publicly since before Truegain, estimated in 2008 to be worth $60 million annually to the Lower Hunter economy, went into liquidation in September 2016 with debts of almost $6 million, including $1.38 million owed to workers.
Testing has revealed PFAS levels in existing groundwater wells on the site exceed drinking water and recreational guidelines. Copper, nickel and zinc were detected in groundwater above recommended guidelines.
"Well MW3 appears to be the most impacted," an EPA report reads. "This is located in close proximity to the underground storage tank located to the central portion of the site near the eastern boundary."
An EPA spokesman said it was investigating claims Mr Pullinger was out of money and remediation options for the site.
Mrs Cocco said the community deserved better. "If you or I went out and polluted creeks so no-one could use the water they would throw the book at us," she said.
"It's not right, it's not fair and something has to change. Someone has to be held accountable for this mess, it can't always be left for the taxpayers. The system is broken but it's like no-one is listening or even cares, they just want to keep us in the dark so we have no idea what is going on."