CONTROVERSIAL Rutherford recycler Truegain has shut its doors, leaving angry workers owed money and an environmental legacy of toxic materials including the firefighting foams at the heart of the Williamtown RAAF controversy.
Owner Rob Pullinger said on Monday he had no choice but to put Truegain and another business that operates from the site, Australian Waste Oil Refineries, into the hands of insolvency experts.
ASIC records show Sydney firm Jamieson Louttit and Associates became liquidator of both firms on Wednesday last week in a company-initiated voluntary windup.
Mr Pullinger acknowledged that employees were owed entitlements but said that shutting the business “this way” meant they would be paid at least some money through the federal government’s General Employee and Entitlements or GEERS scheme.
Angry workers say Mr Pullinger should be “cashed up” because he had just sold a portion of the oil business to a rival, and should have the money to treat the remaining 16 workers properly.
Truegain has recycled a range of materials at its Kyle Street, Rutherford, site since the 1990s, with the contaminated water side of the business handled by Truegain and the waste oil and fuels processed by Australian Waste Oil Refineries.
Mr Pullinger acknowledged there were concerns over the waste that was stored for treatment at Rutherford and said he was trying to work that out over the next few days with the liquidators and regulators.
Hunter Water disconnected Truegain from the sewage system in February and the NSW Environment Protection Authority said last night that the company’s Environment Protection licence was also suspended.
The EPA said it visited the Rutherford site on Monday and saw oily water in various tanks and bunds.
These had capacity in event of further rain but the EPA was also “ aware of the need for on-going maintenance of the bunds and the removal of contaminated water from the site”.
Former workers said Truegain had been fined before after contaminated water escaped from its “bunded” or walled tank farms, and they feared the same would happen again this week if the rain that fell over the weekend continued as predicted.
“I drove past there at the weekend and that bunded area was almost overflowing,” one former employee said on Monday.
“It overflowed last year during those big April storms and went into the storm water drain next to the property and it’s not too far from going over again.”
Fairfax Media reported that Truegain was fined $30,000 over the April 2015 spillages.
They were the latest – at the time – of a series of incidents that had seen the Environment Protection Authority issue 18 penalty notices in 15 years, as well as two successful prosecutions in the NSW Land and Environment Court.
Truegain has been repeatedly blamed as one of the Rutherford companies responsible for strong odours over nearby residential areas, but its problems escalated in February when Hunter Water disconnected the site from the sewage system over discharges of PFOS.
Hunter Water justified the decision saying it could not lift a suspension on the trade waste licence held by Truegain/Australian Waste Oil Refineries until the companies could demonstrate they could comply with their licence conditions.
We did our best with what we had. We were the meat in the sandwich.
But Mr Pullinger said Hunter Water’s actions had made it extremely hard for the company to keep operating.
He said his company was “the only one in Australia” that could treat PFOS/PFOA properly, and that only “trace” amounts of the chemicals had been found by Hunter Water at its Farley waste-water treatment plant.
He said they were above the limits at the time but would probably fit under the new, higher “interim” PFOS/PFOA guidelines issued this year by the federal government, which have been criticised for being 78 times higher than the comparable US standards.
Asked for its account of the situation, Hunter Water said PFOS and PFOA had been detected at its Farley waste-water treatment plant and traced back to Truegain.
“Samples taken from wastewater discharged by Truegain at the time returned results of 116ug/L of PFOS and 1.14ug/L of PFOA,” Hunter Water said.
To put this in context, the new higher drinking water limits are 0.5ug/L for PFOS and 5ug/L for PFOA. In recreational water, the limits are 10 times higher, meaning the PFOA discharge would appear to be within the new limit, but the PFOS over.
Hunter Water said Truegain’s wastewater licence was supended on February 23 this year.
Hunter Water was regularly visiting the Rutheford site to make sure the sewer was still disconnected.
It said Truegain had written in early September asking for its trade licence suspension to be lifted. It said it had written back to Truegain asking it to “demonstrate controls to prevent PFOS and PFOA contaminated waste from entering the wastewater system”.
On the industrial front, Australian Workers Union assistant branch secretary John Boyd said Truegain was a repeat offender when it came to falling behind with its employees’ entitlements.
“Over the last couple of months the union has had several trips to the Fair work Commission chasing underpayment of wages and superannuation,” Mr Boyd said. “Now the company is in liquidation, we will have to wait and see what funds are available when the creditors meet in Sydney on October 17.
“Being a Hunter company they should have the meeting up here but we will have someone attend regardless.
“Our members are owed substantial amounts of entitlements. Hopefully there will be money left in the company. But if not we will use the GEERS system and do everything we can to assist during the process.”
The employees who spoke to the Newcastle Herald said they were called to a staff meeting on Thursday, and told by insolvency company Jamieson Louttit that they had lost their jobs.
“Most of us have mortgages and young families, some of us are still owed wages from April,” one former employee said.
“There’s one bloke who has worked here 21 years and has never taken a holiday,” he said.
“Owner Bob Pullinger didn’t show for the announcement. We thought he was going to give us the heads up on the company sale and that jobs would be safe.
“We knew there were money issues because the company has been pretty slack in regards to the payment of wages and has a long history of paying what they want when they want.”
Those were union members had contacted the AWU, while others had gone to the some of the workers have contacted the Australian Workers’ Union for support, others have gone to NSW Fair Trading.
“Yes there has been a multitude of problems at the site but we did our jobs to the best of our ability with the equipment we had,” the former employee said.
One worker said he was owed more than $30,000 in entitlements, another said his was more in the vicinity of $40,000.
“We enjoyed our jobs,” the other former worker said.
“The people we worked with were fantastic, a great group. When you’re waiting for wages from April and keep getting told there’s a client that will be paying the company shortly and we’ll get paid up, you know it can’t be good.
“We have been fed constant lies just to keep us there, until the company went bankrupt. It got to a point where the company had to pay cash for things like tyres because it had such as bad payment track record.”
Mr Pullinger acknowledged that people were owed money but said the company had provided jobs and done a lot of good since it was established in 1996.