The Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (EHP) has laid five criminal charges against multinational mining company Linc Energy for causing irreversible environmental damage around the site of its experimental underground coal gasification (UCG) plant at Chinchilla, on the western Darling Downs.
The charges allege that Linc wilfully and unlawfully caused serious contamination with carbon monoxide, hydrogen, hydrogen sulphide, carcinogenic BTEX and other gases.
EHP Director-General Jon Black said, “The gas pollution detected is from an underground coal combustion process.”
A 320km² exclusion zone has been established by the EHP around the 1km² Linc plant, engulfing the entire Hopeland agricultural community.
Digging deeper than 2 metres is not permitted within the exclusion zone because of the risk of explosions triggered by sparks.
WORKERS FALL ILL
The ABC reported on March 16 that an internal government briefing said an investigation had confirmed workers' claims they fell ill due to a series of uncontrolled gas releases at the plant between 2007 and 2013.
Several private Hopeland properties recently returned positive soil tests for carbon monoxide, hydrogen and hydrogen sulphide — three of the four main gases produced by the UCG process.
Further intensive testing detected unexpectedly high levels of toxic gas and hydrocarbon in soil on adjacent properties, despite Linc decommissioning the plant in 2013.
UCG extracts gas from coal seams that are too deep to mine by burning the coal underground and siphoning off the gas through wells. The syngas, or synthetic gas, produced by the process contains carbon monoxide, benzene, toluene, xylene and other toxic and carcinogenic substances.
The briefing cited by the ABC shows that a medical expert commissioned by the department found that workers had symptoms consistent with exposure to the chemical constituents of syngas.
A search warrant filed in the Supreme Court alleges that staff at Linc's Chinchilla site had complained to the company of “medical conditions … including bleeding noses, dizziness, nausea and vomiting, headaches, blurred vision and respiratory ailments”.
The warrant alleges that staff reported the incidents and related gas releases, but no reports were then made to the authorities.
“Linc has caused each of its staff to sign a confidentiality agreement, so as to prevent disclosure,” the warrant says. “Details … have been advised to Linc's board and senior management in letters of resignation from former technical and other staff, in other human resources records … by way of operator logs, and in emails and other correspondence.”
UNDERGROUND COAL GASIFICATION
Linc Energy was established as a joint venture company with CS Energy, a government-owned corporation in Queensland, to develop UCG for power generation. The joint venture was successful in developing the UCG process, but before the technology proceeded to commercialisation CS Energy sold their shares at a loss.
The company is developing and commercialising unconventional syngas through the combined use of underground coal gasification and gas-to-liquids technologies in Australia, North America, Europe, South Africa, and Asia.
According to Linc Energy's 2004-05 annual financial report: “The relatively cheap and abundant Syngas that can be produced by the UCG process will cost-effectively produce ultra-clean diesel fuels and generate electricity.”
The company describes itself as "an Australian leader in clean coal technology."
The company's Chinchilla Demonstration Facility was the world's first gas-to-liquid plant operating on gas produced by underground coal gasification. The facility has five underground coal gas generators, a gas-to-liquid pilot plant, a laboratory and a wastewater treatment plant.
Linc Energy also plans to build a 20,000 barrels per day gas-to-liquid plant on the Arckaringa Basin in South Australia. The plant would be fed by syngas produced by UCG. BP has an option to buy 70% of the produced diesel fuel.
The serious environmental harm caused by its pilot plant in Chinchilla contradicts Link's claims about the technology being "environmentally friendly" or "ultra-clean".
Green Left Weekly spoke to Shay Dougall, a Hopeland resident who organised her community to recently declare the Hopeland district gasfields-free.
“This Linc situation is an unprecedented and unmitigated disaster. The government is sitting on a knife's edge,” she said. “They want to prosecute Linc for severe environmental harm, but with the technology originally developed in partnership with their own CS Energy in 1997-2004, there is a question regarding accountability and how long they knew of the contamination.
“If the government has said that Linc has caused severe environmental harm and has enough evidence to take it to prosecution, then it would be surprising if there isn't an effect on residents of exposure to carcinogenic BTEX chemicals — benzene, toluene, ethylene and xylene — just as there has been on the Linc workers.
"What is the government doing to support the local people regarding this possible exposure and the possible devastating effects?
“I live within 8km of Linc and have suffered from Linc stink for many years and have made numerous complaints over several years to the EHP. I measured volatile organic compounds of 5.5 parts per million in my lounge room during a Linc stink episode only a week before the exclusion zone was declared in February this year.
“This was measured with the same type of … atmospheric monitoring equipment used by Department officials who tested all around the district. I was living here through my second pregnancy and particularly suffered greatly from the Linc stink, which would give me instant headaches and nausea and vomiting.
“The EHP finally issued me with a test kit that could identify specific elements of the [volatile organic compounds] present during the subsequent intensive EHP taskforce testing, but I have not had an incident of Linc stink since the intensive EHP testing started.”
A search warrant and other documents filed in the Supreme Court in Brisbane allege a series of unreported incidents at the plant.
According to the warrant, during heavy rain in 2010, bubbles could be seen "penetrating the surface of the ground … The source of the bubbles was identified by Linc staff to be carbon monoxide … Linc staff, including management, were aware of this issue, and staff gave the area where bubbling was occurring the name 'Mr Bubbles'.”
The warrant describes how during a joint site inspection by the Queensland departments of environment, natural resources and employment in January 2012, “Linc management caused staff to reduce the pressure in Gasifier 4 … so as to conceal any leakage.”
Documents show that EHP staff were told during briefings before raids on Linc's head office in Brisbane, its Chinchilla site, and two other locations in 2013, that "syngas is leaking from multiple locations on Linc's site at Chinchilla … all of the gasifiers are fractured and that fracture is occurring on site. Linc is aware of this.”
The warrant also alleged: “Samples taken at the site … demonstrated either high levels of contaminants, or levels of contaminants so high that these samples were rejected and not tested by the third party laboratory on the basis that doing so may risk damage to laboratory instruments … In particular, monitoring well M2 became notorious amongst Linc's staff, and was known as 'Puffing Billy', as a result of regular and repeated observations of the release of syngas.”
Shay Dougall told GLW: “At a June 10 meeting of residents and the EHP minister and scientists, they told us that they confirmed the contamination on and off site of the Linc facility. They confirmed that trace contaminants were detected in some individual water tests.
“They detailed that the gas was moving from the source of the contamination through prehistoric rivers within the ground and that the top layer of clay is keeping the contaminant below problem level for agriculture for now.
"This is why we don’t understand why the Government will continue to put this area at further risk by allowing the petroleum leases for coal seam gas over Hopeland to continue.
“What would drilling over 100 wells and associated infrastructure do to the supposed safe barrier? We have also asked the government to provide more details as to what contaminants were discovered at what level in what water — regardless of the tests indicating the levels are at trace amounts now.
“The government has shown a devastating disregard for the health and safety of the residents of this community by allowing the Linc facility to operate such a high risk activity in such close proximity to people and agriculture and with such poor oversight and management.
“If we can have a Royal Commission over cruelty in greyhound racing, what does it say when no action is taken to protect our lives and our livelihoods and the food and fibre we grow?
“We have multiple swinging axes over our heads, and the government has failed to ensure our protection. But … we have declared the Hopeland area gasfields-free, with the support of 85% of our local community, the first area on the Darling Downs to do so.
"We took our declaration to the Lock the Gate Rally … in Brisbane on May 21 … We came back and presented it to a meeting of the Western Downs Regional Council, along with an anti-CSG petition signed by 882 people.
“We told them that we were declaring the Hopelands area gasfield-free under the guidelines of the WDRC Town Plan, to protect prime agricultural land and public health and safety … Unfortunately the State Government has the power to overrule the Town Plan.
“To the government, Linc and CSG are two separate issues. But to us living in the middle of it, these are the same interlinked issues. We have the power to say no, and we need to stand up as communities to these multinational mining companies.”