Prime Farmland Destroyed Thanks To Energy Company’s Lack Of Foresight
A lack of foresight on the part of Linc Energy has caused “irreversible” damage to more than 300 square kilometres of prime crop land in southeast Queensland.
After “flammable levels of hydrogen” were found near Linc Energy’s Hopeland underground coal gasification (UCG) site in 2015, an excavation caution zone was established around the contaminated land and dams associated with the facility. However, according to the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection’s recent testing in 2016, this contamination is even more widespread – outside the boundary of the existing caution zone.
An investigation into the situation, conducted by consultants Gilbert and Sutherland with help from scientists at the University of Queensland, concluded that the contamination at Hopeland is the result of Linc’s mismanagement of the facility, which uses UCG to extract gas for commercial use.
When a coal seam is determined too deep to mine, the naturally occurring methane in the seams can be extracted through the process of UCG – the in situ underground burning of coal to produce gas, which is siphoned off through wells. Compared with conventional mining processes, this unconventional method could leave landscapes more unscathed, but the highly-specialized technology required for UCG is not widely understood by regulators.
According to the environment department’s investigation, the pressure used by Linc to inject air into underground combustion chambers was high enough to fracture both the coal seam and the overburden, which allowed for the escape of “toxic gases.” UCG practice recommends gasifying coal at a depth of at least 600 metres, but the Hopeland plant had been working at only 120 to 140 metres below the surface.
“They willfully and knowingly undertook the operation, and they knew this could lead to catastrophic events,” said Jon Black, the director-general of the environment department.
While Linc has rejected the allegations presented in the department’s report, former workers have come forward with complaints of health concerns, frequent gas alarms on site, and even gas leaks from wellheads and from the ground. Linc has called the allegations “offensive.”
“When you were working at night when there was no breeze, your personal gas detector would be constantly alarming to the extent that I’d get in my vehicle and drive off site for a few kilometres before it would stop alarming,” said one former worker. “I just had to breathe fresh air.”
The company has been charged with “serious environmental harm” for releasing contaminants into the soil and atmosphere in concentrations “above the explosive limits” and “above prescribed health and environmental investigation limits.” According to the department, this has caused “extensive and widespread” adverse effects to the environment.
UCG has now been banned in Queensland, and the environment department is working toward rehabilitating the site. This work will “largely be funded by Linc’s financial assurance, which (the department) secured from the company’s liquidators in late 2016,” according to the environment department’s website.
Investigation and prosecution of Linc and former executives, as well as litigation surrounding Environmental Protection Orders issued by the environment department, are still pending. Environmental offences can carry a penalty of jailtime of up to five years.