A jury has found gas company Linc Energy guilty of causing serious environmental harm at its trial underground coal gasification (UCG) plant near Chinchilla on Queensland's Darling Downs.
Queensland’s Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (DEHP) accused the company of wilfully causing irreversible damage to the environment between 2007 and 2013 by allowing toxic chemicals and gases to escape, and alleged that fugitive gases from the site — including carbon monoxide, hydrogen and hydrogen sulphide — polluted a wide area up to six metres underground.
The case was the result of the biggest investigation ever undertaken by the department. Linc Energy said the evidence was circumstantial and pleaded not guilty to five counts of wilfully and unlawfully causing environmental harm.
During the 10-week trial, at which Linc Energy did not appear because it has gone into liquidation, the court heard the company had allowed hazardous contaminants to spread, even after scientists and workers warned about gases bubbling from the ground.
“Bond prioritised Linc’s commercial interests over the requirements of operating its mining activity in an environmentally safe manner,” Devlin said. “Linc did nothing to stop, mitigate or rehabilitate the state of affairs that Linc itself had caused.”
The company mismanaged the underground burning of coal seams at the plant. It injected air into underground combustion chambers at pressures that were too high, causing the rock surrounding the coal seam to fracture, which allowed toxic gases to escape. Its operations left water polluted to the point it was unfit for stock to consume.
In 2015, the Queensland government imposed an "excavation exclusion zone" on more than 300 square kilometres around the Linc facility where landholders were banned from digging any hole deeper than 2 metres. The zone was lifted at the beginning of this year.
Linc Energy will be sentenced on May 11. The company is facing maximum penalties of up to $9 million in fines.