The ABC has revealed that a report prepared for the Queensland government says that hundreds of square kilometres of prime agricultural land are at risk from an experimental plant operated by mining company Linc Energy.
Queensland’s environment department alleges that the Linc plant at Chinchilla is responsible for the toxic chemicals and explosive gases that have caused “irreversible” damage to valuable Darling Downs farming land.
The environment department has launched a $6.5 million criminal prosecution of the company, alleging that Linc Energy is responsible for “gross interference” to the health and wellbeing of workers at the plant and “serious environmental harm”.
Linc operates an underground coal gasification (UCG) plant, which is an experimental method of extracting gas from coal seams that are too deep to mine using conventional coal seam gas (CSG) methods.
In conventional CSG fracking, water is pumped into the coal seam to force the naturally-occuring gas trapped there to the surface. In UCG mining, oxygen is pumped into the coal seam, which is then set on fire and allowed to burn underground. That combustion produces synthesis gas, or syngas.
Farmers and conservationists have long been critical of UCG, warning it has the potential to poison aquifers and contaminate land.
The Queensland government was warned in 2006, before the plant began operation, that they should investigate the risk of it contaminating aquifers prior to allowing Linc to proceed with burning coal underground.
Then-chief policy adviser at the Department of Mines and Petroleum Geoff Edwards wrote in a document prepared for Cabinet in 2006: "If there is any risk of this happening, it would be better to compulsorily acquire Linc's lease and close this operation down immediately".
But the government gave Linc the go-ahead and nine years later they have discovered that Linc’s activities have released gases that have caused the permanent acidification of the soil. They also found explosive levels of hydrogen and abnormal amounts of methane, which they say is being artificially generated underground, over a wide area. High levels of cancer-causing benzene were also detected at the site.
So dangerous is the area that four departmental investigators were overcome with suspected gas poisoning and had to be hospitalised after testing the soil in the area.
Shay Dougall of the Hopeland Community Sustainability Group said: “We are disgusted that we were living 24/7 with the UCG nightmare and have been complaining to the government about it for the last three years. We're told the government investigators became sick, but what about the landholders who have lived with this toxic mix constantly?
“The contaminants are still there and we are being subjected to them on a daily basis. We’d like to know when this mess is going to be cleaned up and what sort of management of the landholders' health and safety is being undertaken and what compensation we can expect for this unsafe experiment.”
Lock the Gate Alliance’s Drew Hutton said UCG should be banned immediately and called for an urgent investigation of possible contamination from Carbon Energy's UCG plant near Kogan, which was supposedly decommissioned but was seen flaring last month.
“Five years ago I warned the state government that it should not allow UCG in Queensland because of its potential for serious contamination. They went ahead anyway and now we are left with the toxic legacy of this industry.
“This dangerous experiment should never have been started and it should be immediately banned around Australia.”
The government has imposed an "excavation exclusion zone" of 314 square kilometres around the Linc facility, where landholders are banned from digging deeper than two metres for fear of an explosion.
The investigation is the biggest in the environment department's history. More than 100 investigators, including consultants Gilbert & Sutherland and scientists at the University of Queensland, have been working on the case since March.
The department alleges that Linc mismanaged the underground burning of coal seams, causing the release of contaminants into the soil, air and water. They allege Linc injected air into underground combustion chambers at pressures that were too high, which allowed toxic gases to escape.
The investigators found "volatile organic compounds, which are known carcinogens, and 'bulk' gases, which at high enough levels, can cause health and safety risks" in an area of up to 320 square kilometres around the Chinchilla plant.
Former workers at the Linc plant told the ABC that gas alarms sounded frequently, there were gas leaks from wellheads and from the ground and they often suffered headaches and sickness.
The government has demanded $22 million in financial guarantees from Linc to cover the cost of cleaning up the water and sediment in several storage dams at the facility, which are "likely" to be contaminated with dioxins and other pollutants. But Linc has refused to provide the guarantee, claiming the demand is unreasonable and unfounded.