ECONOMIST Herman Daly contends that man transforms raw materials into commodities and commodities into garbage. But, as Hunter residents in the shadow of noxious heavy industry’s legacy are discovering, there is a later stage to consider: disposal.
Historically we have given little regard to where our garbage goes when we are done. Recycling’s rise is a recent phenomena compared to the wasteful ways of the past.
But when the substances dealt with can come back to haunt us, as it can in the case of potent chemical waste, it requires more than a second thought.
Former workers turned whistleblowers at Maitland waste-oil refinery company Truegain say there is yet another toxic legacy to contend with, alleging the company’s pollution of surrounding waterways that link to the Hunter River was “deliberately done, all to save money”.
For anyone who has interacted with the waters of that river, it makes for sobering reading. Former senior employees say it was difficult to know where product was coming from, and that has potentially allowed Williamtown’s PFAS problems to spread, with the product sometimes including contaminated aviation fuel from RAAF bases.
It was reportedly used as a cleaning product and washed down the drain.
A former company director of the company that promoted itself as an environmental champion before it went into liquidation in 2016, denies the allegations.
The NSW EPA has defended its handling of the situation, saying it took “strong regulatory action”. That action included two Land and Environment Court fines totalling $30,000, two clean-up notices and nine penalty notices between 2003 and 2016.
What is evident from workers’ accounts and Hunter Water’s eventual intervention to disconnect the Kyle Street plant from its sewer network is that problems persisted. Perhaps the penalties failed to provide a sufficient deterrent.
It perhaps also failed to offer any workers considering raising the alarm earlier the certainty they likely wanted that taking the risk to provide information would result in finally halting the problematic practices they have detailed now.
If that is the case, perhaps the regulator needs greater powers or resources to pursue rogue operators where necessary before they can inflict serious damage that cannot be reversed. “Despite its legacy of spills, leaks and breaches, they were allowed to continue operating,” one former worker said.
“We never really understood why it wasn’t shut down.”
It is unlikely exact quantities or chemicals lost into the waterways will ever be known precisely. But that question of why Truegain’s plant was able to continue operation amid these concerns is the one that most needs answering. The failings of the past must be identified if they are to become the safeguards of the future.