Linc Energy: Secret report reveals toxic legacy of coal gasification trials near SE Queensland town of Chinchilla Exclusive by the National Reporting Team’s Mark Solomons and Mark Willacy, August 10, 2015, ABC News
“Executives could face the prospect of jail”
A secret government report says Linc Energy has caused “irreversible” damage to land near Chinchilla
Hundreds of square kilometres of prime agricultural land in southeast Queensland are at risk from a cocktail of toxic chemicals and explosive gases, according to a secret State Government report.
A study commissioned by Queensland’s environment department says an experimental plant operated by mining company Linc Energy at Chinchilla, west of Brisbane, is to blame and has already caused “irreversible” damage to strategic cropping land.
AUDIO: Linc Energy’s Hopeland site an environmental time bomb (PM)
The department, which has launched a $6.5 million criminal prosecution of the company, alleges Linc is responsible for “gross interference” to the health and wellbeing of former workers at the plant as well as “serious environmental harm”. [How many billions in “gross interference” to health and well being of Albertans and other damages after the Alberta government gives billions to the oil and gas industry for enhanced profit-taking in the guise of CO2 injection?]
The 335-page experts’ report, obtained by the ABC, has been disclosed to Linc but not to landholders.
It says gases released by Linc’s activities at its underground coal gasification plant at Hopeland have caused the permanent acidification of the soil near the site.
Experts also found concentrations of hydrogen in the soil at explosive levels and abnormal amounts of methane, which they say is being artificially generated underground, over a wide area.
Read the key findings from the experts’ report
The region is a fertile part of the Western Darling Downs and is used to grow wheat, barley and cotton and for cattle grazing, with some organic producers.
Other documents, released to the ABC by the magistrate in charge of the criminal case, show four departmental investigators were hospitalised with suspected gas poisoning during soil testing at the site in March.
“My nausea lasted for several hours. I was also informed by the treating doctor that my blood tests showed elevated carbon monoxide levels (above what was normal),” one of the investigators said.
High levels of cancer-causing benzene were detected at the site afterwards.
Read the inspector’s statement, and Linc Energy’s response.
Landholders banned from digging in 300 square kilometre zone
INFOGRAPHIC: Environment department map showing Excavation Caution Zone south of Chinchilla
Earlier this year the State Government imposed an “excavation exclusion zone” on 314 square kilometres around the Linc facility where landholders are banned from digging any hole deeper than two metres.
It told landholders there were no immediate concerns with air and water quality in the region.
The wide-ranging investigation, by consultants Gilbert & Sutherland with help from scientists at the University of Queensland, included the examination of air, water and soil samples as well as records seized during raids by department investigators on Linc Energy’s offices.
What is UCG?
- Underground coal gasification is a so-called “unconventional” means of extracting gas from coal seams that are too deep to mine. Coal is burned in situ underground and the gas produced is siphoned off through wells.
- It differs significantly from CSG production, which involves drawing enough water to reduce the pressure underground to release the naturally occurring methane in the coal seams.
- UCG technology was first proposed in the 19th century but was only adopted seriously after World War II in Russia and former Soviet client states.
- Benefits of UCG include the fact that landscapes remain relatively unscathed compared with conventional mining, emissions are low and the gas produced can be used for power generation or condensed to make liquid fuels such as diesel.
- Disadvantages of UCG are that it is sensitive to local geological conditions, expensive to set up, and the technology is highly specialised and poorly understood by regulators.
The authors allege Linc mismanaged the underground burning of coal seams at Chinchilla, causing the release of contaminants into the soil, air and water.
They claim Linc injected air into underground combustion chambers at pressures that were too high, causing the rock surrounding the coal seam to fracture and allowing the escape of toxic gases. [Like Encana did in Rosebud’s drinking water aquifers?]
“Not only was the pressure high enough to fracture the coal seam, it was also high enough to fracture the overburden,” the authors wrote. [Did Encana do this at Rosebud? Is this why the AER and Alberta government work so hard to cover up what Encana did? Is this why the lengthy court delays in the Ernst vs Encana lawsuit?]
“Once this fracturing had occurred, it was unsafe to ignite the coal seam.”
The consultants said they had 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.
“We have found gases in quantities above the explosive limit. In our reconnaissance boreholes, explosive levels have been found that indicate very much higher concentrations in the soil atmosphere,” the consultants reported.
The consultants hired scientists at the University of Queensland to recreate conditions underground at Hopeland in the laboratory, using coal from the same seam and subjecting it to extreme temperatures to obtain an isotopic “fingerprint” to rule out other sources for the contamination.
In statement to the ABC, Linc Energy strongly rejected the department’s allegations that it had caused serious environmental harm and said the department had “commenced these proceedings without sufficient scientific evidence”.
[From Linc Energy’s statement:
….the Department has continued with their proceedings against Linc Energy claiming widespread contamination of soils by the gases hydrogen, carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulfide (despite the fact that minimal analysis for hydrogen sulfide was conducted during this testing). Linc Energy continues to deny these allegations and considers that naturally occurring sub-soil processes are the most likely cause of the gases detected by the Department. To this end, and in parallel with the Department’s further investigations, Linc Energy commissioned an independent study from a third party expert that focussed on potential sources of the regional occurrence of sub-soil hydrogen.
This study concluded that due to the regional geology, and consistent with similar findings in other regions of the world, radioactive decay of uranium, thorium and water is the most likely source.
The environment department’s investigation is the biggest in its history: more than 100 investigators are working on the case.
“(Linc) wilfully and knowingly undertook the operation and they… knew that this could lead to catastrophic events,” the department’s director-general Jon Black said. [Like Encana secretly, willfully and knowingly frac’d hundreds of gas wells in Alberta’s Horseshoe Canyon Play in the fresh water zones, and after wide-spread drinking water contamination, lying willfully and knowingly and continuing to willfully and knowingly frac into fresh water zones in communities with contaminated drinking water? At least Australian authorities are conducting a proper investigation in this case. What is Ex-Encana VP, AER Chair Gerard Protti doing in Alberta? Why are no Alberta regulator staff speaking out publicly?]
Linc said naturally occurring sub-soil processes were the most likely cause of the gases detected by the department, [Like Alberta Environment, the AER, Encana, Quicksilver, Alberta Research Council (now Alberta Innovates), other companies blaming nature for the many contamination cases here?] and the investigation represented a “monumental mishandling of Queensland’s strained financial resources”.
Former workers have told the ABC that during their time at Linc, gas alarms sounded frequently, there were gas leaks from wellheads and from the ground, and they often suffered headaches and sickness.
In statements to department investigators, two workers claimed they resigned over health concerns that were ignored by the company.
“Well into my time at Linc I began to suffer chest pain and flu-like symptoms. These symptoms included general aches. I recall a lot of us had similar complaints,” one worker said.
“I often felt unwell on site — headaches, feeling ill in the stomach,” another said.
“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.
“I just had to breathe fresh air.”
Read the workers’ statements and Linc Energy’s response in full.
Linc told the ABC such allegations were “offensive”, adding that it had not received any complaints regarding workers’ health since 2008.
The environment department has asked Linc for $22 million in additional financial guarantees to cover the cost of cleaning up the water and sediment in several storage dams at the facility, which the department claims are “likely” to be contaminated with dioxins and other pollutants.
Linc is refusing to provide the guarantee and has taken the matter to the Land Court. Filings show the company has told the department the demand is unreasonable and unfounded.
It has also said it cannot raise the amount in cash and would need to completely restructure its global debt to pay such an amount.
According to the environment department’s website, it plans to give people in Hopeland further “feedback on the investigation” into possible soil, water and air contamination in September. [Emphasis added]
Government inspectors hospitalised after gasfield visit by Brisbane Times, August 10, 2015
Four Queensland government workers were hospitalised while investigating an underground coal gasification plant at the centre of serious pollution allegations.
Documents obtained by the ABC reveal the environment departmental investigators suffered suspected gas poisoning while testing soil at the site of the Linc Energy operation at Hopeland, west of Brisbane.
One of the workers said he was nauseous for several hours and his blood tests showed elevated levels of carbon monoxide.
An expert study commissioned by Queensland’s environment department, also obtained by the ABC, says gases released at the plant have caused the permanent acidification of nearby soil.
Hopeland Community Sustainability Group’s Shay Dougall said locals were furious the government report would not be released to them until next month.
“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,” she said.
“We’re told the government investigators became sick, but what about the landholders who have lived with this toxic mix constantly?”
In June, the department levelled a fifth charge of causing serious environmental harm against Linc Energy following a four-month investigation into soil contamination.
The previous charges were brought against the company in April last year.
Linc has denied any wrongdoing and has said it will defend all charges before the courts. [Emphasis added]
More on Linc Energy:
- Workers ‘exposed to dangerous gases’ at Chinchilla plant
- Government hires investigator to look into leaks to ABC
- Linc accused of failing to report dangerous gas leaks
- Queensland Government widens legal action against Linc Energy
- Linc Energy accused of gas leak cover-up
- Linc ‘exposed workers to dangerous gases’
- Underground fire may have caused gas build-up
[Refer also to:
2015: Queensland regulator: gases near Chinchilla might be from Linc Energy coal gasification plant, Preliminary tests on private properties showed carbon monoxide, hydrogen, hydrogen sulphide yet Queensland Health says “no health risks to landowners” (Reality check: the gases might kill you or ignite)
2014: Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP): Coal bed methane operations contaminate water resources
Yet CAPP’s Alex Ferguson says many worries about water quality are based on past operations involving coal-bed methane — shallow deposits in closer proximity to groundwater. These did occasionally contaminate water resources, he says. In some of the more infamous instances, affected landowners could light their well water on fire.
2014 05 03: Alberta Government, regulators, health agency and company silent for years as groundwater contamination spreads and families poisoned
2013: Radon gas leaks in coalbed methane fields in Australia spark call for probe
2012: Coal gas stream blaze still alight west of Dalby
2012: Coal Seam Gas in Northern Rivers / New South Wales and Queensland
“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular; but one must take it because it is right.” …
“As a rural area is industrialized, the psychological impact of such destruction of property, lifestyle, prospects results in predictable emotional responses. Many suffer anxiety, breakdown, depression, some suicide. And they simply say, ‘I’m going down the back to fix the fence.’ And they don’t come back, they can’t handle it.”
2011: Australian Petroleum Association: Coal seam damage to water inevitable
The coal seam gas industry has conceded that extraction will inevitably contaminate aquifers. “Drilling will, to varying degrees, impact on adjoining aquifers,” said the spokesman, Ross Dunn. “The intent of saying that is to make it clear that we have never shied away from the fact that there will be impacts on aquifers,” Mr Dunn said.