Queensland landholders claim secrecy over experimental coal gasification plant

from ABC

By Mark Solomons and Mark Willacy

Photo: Darling Downs farmer George Bender has criticised how long it took for landholders to be notified. (ABC)

Landholders on Queensland’s Darling Downs say they are being kept in the dark about the nature of serious environmental harm allegedly caused by an experimental coal gasification plant.

Last week the Queensland Government filed four criminal charges of irreversible or "high impact" harm relating to the plant against resources company Linc Energy.

It emerged the state’s environment department began investigating suspected environmental breaches nine months ago, but landholders told the ABC that the first they had heard of it was last Friday.

Linc Energy faces four charges of "wilfully and unlawfully" causing serious harm, with the company facing fines of more than $2 million for each offence.

The company rejected the charges as "misguided".

The ABC understands one of the charges related to a so-called overburden fracture, a crack in the layers of rock and soil that sit above the coal seam.

In some cases this can lead to the escape of gases into the air or allow groundwater into the cavity.

Only six weeks before that the environment guy was down to us and said everything was OK. So I don’t know what’s happened there.

Farmer George Bender

Cropping and livestock farmer George Bender said he had been told there was no "immediate" threat, but wanted this clarified.

"Immediate threat, well that’s probably this week, tomorrow or the next day, but what happens in six weeks’ time or six months’ time?" he said.

Mr Bender and other locals previously complained about a foul odour coming from the plant.

He said that prior to the State Government initiating its investigation last year, one of its officials reassured him about the plant.

"Only six weeks before that, the environment guy was down to us and said everything was OK. So I don’t know what’s happened there," he said.

"Whether they knew about it but didn’t let on, or the Government knew about it… it seems a bit secret to me."

Linc Energy denies Environment Department’s charges

Linc Energy said it would defend against the allegations.

It told the ABC it had complied with its environmental authority at the site and that it was not aware of "any environmental harm beyond the limits of its operating licence".

It said the allegations, which "remain un-particularised by the department" related to older technology no longer in use.

Linc said it chose the site for its research and development facility, which it began decommissioning in October, because of the "strong and stable geological structures at Chinchilla".

Coal gasification has ‘appalling record’: environmentalist

Underground coal gasification (UCG) is a controversial technique involving the injecting of oxygen and water into cavities in a coal seam to produce gas that is used to generate power.

Environmental activist Drew Hutton, who has campaigned against the technology, said it "should be banned because it’s potentially highly polluting".

Mr Hutton said there had already been a prosecution of another UCG company, Cougar Energy, over the polluting of a local aquifer at Kingaroy in Queensland.

"It has an appalling record," he said.

Western Downs Mayor Ray Brown said UCG was "a monster in the making" unless it was done properly.

He criticised the State Government for telling locals about the problems "at five minutes past five on a Friday".

"Landholders should have been notified immediately," he said.

The Queensland Government was strongly criticised by the state’s Auditor-General this month over failures in supervision, monitoring and enforcement of environmental conditions placed on resources projects.

In a report, the Auditor-General found the Government was exposing the environment to unnecessary harm and taxpayers to huge liabilities because of outdated computer systems and communications failures.

Linc Energy has been one of the biggest donors to the governing Queensland Liberal National Party, giving more than $100,000 since 2012.

A spokeswoman for Environment Minister Andrew Powell said it would be inappropriate for him to comment as the matter was before the courts.

The Linc Energy case is due to be heard in the Chinchilla Magistrates Court on May 28.