MORE than six years after he was splashed with toxic liquid at Truegain’s Rutherford plant, Jeff Gayford still suffers from skin problems no one can treat or properly explain.
Truegain, also known as Australian Waste Oil Refineries, was forced into liquidation in September 2016.
The company’s atrocious environmental record, exposed by a Newcastle Herald investigation on Saturday, included oil and liquid waste dumping into surrounding waterways and properties dating back decades.
Toxic firefighting foam chemicals – at the heart of the Williamtown ‘red zone’ scandal - have been found at the plant and in creeks behind the refinery that lead to the Hunter River.
Then there are the workers whom almost no one talks about.
Many owed thousands in unpaid entitlements, some still looking for work two years after the plant closed and others concerned about the years they spent breathing in a hydrocarbon haze.
Mr Gayford, who worked at the plant for almost 10 years, still suffers severe skin reactions after waste-oil by-product dripped onto his scalp in May 2012.
Six years later, his skin still breaks out in strange rashes when he is exposed to petroleum fumes or some detergents.
Fuelling his car and washing up can trigger an outbreak.
He can no longer use soaps with perfumes.
The former plant supervisor said he was cleaning a section of the plant when liquid dripped through a pipe onto his head.
At the time he was working in the gas oil stripping plant at the refinery.
“I knew I had to wash it off straight away, I'd seen the stuff eat through a stainless steel pipe,” he said.
“I went straight under the safety shower. But when I got up the next morning it was weeping and that’s when all the trouble started.”
Mr Gayford was hospitalised several times, went “back and forth” between doctors who said he was lucky not to go blind and saw two specialists over the next year.
Every time he was exposed to fumes at the plant his skin would break out in a sore, red rash that caused swelling.
At times it covered his head, or appeared on his stomach, back, hands and legs.
“They said it was in my skin, it was a very rare case,” he said.
“The fumes in the plant would trigger it off again and my skin would break out. They tried to get me away from the fumes and put me down the back of the plant, but I still had to walk past the plant to get out.
“In the end the specialist made the decision for me, I was told to get out of there for my own health.”
After working at the refinery for almost a decade, he was forced to leave six weeks before his long service was due.
“I haven't felt right since it happened,” he said. “The smallest thing can trigger it off. The insurance company paid for me to get a security licence and that was it. That was all I got and I still have problems with it now. It absolutely stinks.”
My Gayford lodged a compensation claim but said he was forced to drop it when his doctor retired part way through the process. “I lost my doctor and it was such an unusual case it was difficult to get someone else to back me up,” he said.
“It all got too hard to keep pursuing. My lawyer had to push to get the insurance company to pay for the security licence, they weren’t even going to do that at one stage.”
Mr Gayford, who kept a diary of his time at the refinery recording what went on, described how the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) “raided” his house and took it.
I knew I had to wash it off straight away, I'd seen the stuff eat through a stainless steel pipe.Jeff Gayford
“One of the other workers told them I had a diary. It detailed truck movements and other things that were happening out there,” he said.
“I didn’t trust what was going on so I just wrote it all down. I was under a court order not to tell anyone what happened. In the end I made a statement to the EPA.”
Several workers described how they were interviewed by EPA investigators about what was happening at the refinery, but said Truegain’s lawyer would sit in on the meetings.
“You couldn’t say a thing,” a former employee said. “If you did you knew whatever you said would be relayed straight back to everyone and it certainly wouldn’t help with your future work prospects.”
Many former workers told the Herald of a lack of safety equipment and maintenance at the plant and said repair and upkeep plagued the ageing refinery.
One former worker described how he was forced to seek medical treatment after dangerous gases escaped at the plant.
“The place was a nightmare,” he said. “I could have been killed it was that serious.”
A former plant operator, who only lasted in the job for six months, said he had to burn his work clothes after he quit.
He said conditions were so bad, he wanted out as soon as he began the job.
“[It was the] biggest brothel I’ve even seen - sheer and utter filth,” he said.
“Day one I said 'I don’t think I’ll be here for too long’.”
The former worker cited a general lack of housekeeping, worn-out equipment - including holes in tanks and an inescapable stink as prominent memories of his time with the company.
“I think they had a massive drainage problem and how to deal with water,” he said.
“You had to put waders on to walk through to connect hose to another drainage tank. You should have been able to walk through without even gum boots on. Everything was dodgy from the front gate to the back wall.”
Another former employee, who worked closely with chemicals, said she quit her job because she felt it was “unsafe” given she was pregnant and “breathing in gases” that had to be burnt off when looking for the “trigger point” for oil.
She said it was only after extensive complaints that she was supplied with a filter mask to wear while working with the chemicals.
Several former employees, from different departments in the business, complained about the lack of safety measures across the Rutherford site. At one point there was only one employee qualified in first aid, who had to complete the training off their own bat.
“We got used to having no money, used to having no safety,” one said. “Companies didn’t want to deal with us because we had such a bad reputation. Safety was non existent, there was no concern for health and safety of employees.”
Philip Towers, who worked at the plant for 12 years, said he got used to taking his own safety equipment to work. He said it got that bad at the Rutherford plant that workers weren’t even supplied with toilet paper.
“There were times when you couldn't even get gloves,” he said. “They were washing disposable red gloves and making people wear them over and over again. There was no regard for safety.”
A former truck driver said he saw “foaming water”, which he now believes was toxic PFAS chemicals, in tanks at the plant long before the refinery closed.
“It was like a bubble bath, the water would just froth. It was coming in on my truck and everyone else's. Sometimes they couldn't fit it, you would always wonder what they did with it,” he said.
“You'd go back the next morning and the truck would be empty and ready to go again. At the time I didn't know what that water was. It used to stink, like beyond swamp water.”
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