Two–and–a–half years after the suicide of Chinchilla farmer and Lock the Gate activist George Bender, who had led a decade long campaign against fracking, on May 11 Linc Energy was fined a record $4.5 million for causing serious environmental harm at its underground coal gasification plant on Queensland's western Darling Downs.
The company was charged with five counts of wilfully and unlawfully causing serious environmental harm between 2007 and 2013 at Hopeland, near Chinchilla, by allowing toxic chemicals and gases — including carbon monoxide, hydrogen and hydrogen sulphide — to escape, polluting a wide area up to six metres underground. It was found guilty in April after a 10 week trial.
Linc Energy did not defend itself during the trial because it is now in liquidation.
Prosecutor Ralph Devlin told the court Linc Energy mismanaged the underground burning of coal seams, which caused rock to fracture and allowed the escape of toxic gases which contaminated the air, soil and water on site.
He said the company knew it was causing damage but pressed ahead with operations: "The defendant acted in devious and cavalier way … its motivation was commercial gain. It pursued commercial interests over environmental safeguards."
The court heard there would be monitoring and remediation of the site for decades to come, and it will take 10–20 years for groundwater to recover.
Judge Michael Shanahan said that despite the company being in liquidation, there is good reason to impose financial penalties. "I am unsure of any of its assets or liabilities and capacity to pay fines," he said.
Shanahan said the offence was carried out over seven years and was "persistent and in clear breach" of its obligations. “Linc was well aware of the damage being done … and attempted to hide it from the regulator."
Criminal charges have been brought against five executive directors for failing to ensure compliance. They are due to face a committal hearing in the Brisbane Magistrates Court in July.
Lock the Gate spokesperson Vicki Perrin said she is deeply concerned about Linc Energy's ability to pay the $4.5 million penalty, given it is currently in liquidation.
"The Queensland government needs to stop approving every mining and gas project that comes before it, and set higher standards in the early stages before we end up with another mess like this," she said.