Disturbing new evidence indicates that a 14 year old underground coal gasification (UCG) project on Queensland’s western Darling Downs has caused serious human health effects and widespread, high impact and irreversible environmental impacts to prime agricultural land in the region.
ABC News yesterday released leaked results of an investigation commissioned by the Queensland Department of Environment into Linc Energy’s UCG project west of Chinchilla
Underground Coal Gassification involves burning of subterranean coal seams to convert coal into a synthesis gas or syngas, a mixture consisting primarily of hydrogen and carbon monoxide.
The ABC report said the department, which has launched a $6.5 million criminal prosecution of Linc Energy, alleges the company is responsible for “gross interference” to the health and wellbeing of former workers at the plant as well as causing “serious environmental harm”.
Earlier this year the State Government imposed an “excavation exclusion zone” on a 314 square kilometre area around the Linc Energy UCG facility where landholders are banned from digging any hole deeper than two metres.
At the time the Queensland Government told landholders there were no immediate concerns with air, water or soil quality in the region.
However, the results of the 335 page investigation performed for the Department by consultants Gilbert & Sutherland and the University of Queensland, which examined air, water and soil samples as well as records seized during raids by department investigators on Linc Energy’s offices, tells a different story, according to the ABC report.
It says carcinogens and gases have been found in high enough levels to cause health and safety risks in an area of up to 314 square km aroundthe plant.
It also states that some of the land surrounding the site can no longer be classified as strategic cropping land because Linc’s activities have caused irreversible acidification of the soil and has released toxic contaminants into water and air as well.
Details contained in witness statements between former Linc workers and the Queensland Department of Environment documented reported health complaints including headaches, chest pains, flu like symptoms, nausea and fatigue, symptoms which medical experts said were consistent with exposure to toxic syngas.
Rural landholders and residents within the excavation exclusion zone are furious that the State Government has sat on the report and not yet informed them about its contents.
They are meeting later this week to discuss whether to launch a Class Action against Linc Energy and the Queensland Government.
They are also sending the Queensland Government a “please explain” letter and calling on it to launch a comprehensive investigation into health impacts from gas extraction activities throughout the region, both from UCG and Coal Seam Gas (CSG) operations.
“It is absolutely ridiculous that they have this secret report that ABC has a copy of, that Linc Energy has a copy of, but the people who have been suffering through this for the last 10 years are kept out of the loop,” Hopeland resident and former gas industry health and safety consultant Shay Dougall told Beef Central this morning.
“This is what has happened all along.”
Mrs Dougall said that despite increasing evidence of human health and environmental impacts the Queensland Government had been issuing media releases telling local residents that air, water and land in their area was fine.
“Then we hear about this secret report which says very different things to their meeting and media releases, saying that the degree of contamination is widespread, of high impact and in part irreversible.
“At every point we have said to Government if you have evidence of severe environmental damage then you must have causality of human health impacts. There must be some link there, what are you doing to identify the potential impacts on these people’s health?”
“They have gone to opposite lengths to keep it secret.”
“A putrid, unholy smell”
In her own case, Mrs Dougall lives with her husband and two young children 10km away from Linc Energy’s UCG facility.
She said the locals referred to “the putrid, unholy smell” of leaked gas as the “Linc Stink”.
“We have had the Linc Stink for years, every time we would get it I would get headaches and nausea. It is absolutely obvious what it is,” she said.
Mrs Dougall was worked as a health and safety consultant for 20 years, and previously worked with the Carbon Energy UCG project. She said she has measured Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s) in her own loungeroom using the same gas monitoring equipment as used by the Department of Environment at levels of 5 parts per million, which includes the BTEX componuds Benzene, Toluene, Ethylene and Xylene.
She said she has collected readings as high as 216 ppm from Coal Seam Gas Wells in the region.
“We’re talking private home based exposure,” she said. “When I was pregnant I would have my head in the sink and spewing every time this smell came.”
“This is the vortex to hell basically, we have had bores exploding, and rivers bubbling with gas.”
Area should be no go zone for all gas companies until more is known
Mrs Dougall is also calling on the Queensland Government to stop Coal Seam Gas (CSG) companies from drilling in the area until the full impacts and implications for local residents are known and understood.
“Surely during a period such as this of never-seen-before contamination the Government should say this is a no go zone until we sort this out and we are not going to put this community through any further risk of contamination,” she said.
“Well two kilometres down the road Origin are drilling their hearts out and are trying very hard to get in further and closer.”
She said the release of toxic gas was also creating concerns for local farmers who included organic farmers and biodynamic farmers who supply high level restaurants and were terrified about how the leaking gas could affect directly their product and its saleability.
In a report on the ABC 7:30 program last night Queensland Department of Environment director general John Black said Linc Energy is being prosecuted over charges of causing serious environmental harm.
“They willfully and knowingly undertook the operation and they knowingly knew this could lead to catastrophic events,” Mr Black told reported Mark Willacy.
The report said the Gilbert and Sutherland study has found that gases released by Linc Energy’s UCG activities 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.
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.
Lock the Gate calls for total UCG ban
Lock the Gate Alliance spokesman Drew Hutton said UCG should be banned immediately and has called for an urgent investigation of possible contamination.
“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.
“Coal seam gas is similarly experimental and is impacting people on a daily basis. It should also be banned until both the federal and state governments can prove unequivocally that it’s completely safe.”
Beef Central has contacted Linc Energy for a response but had not received a reply by the time of publishing this article. A comprehensive report on the Hopeland issue which also includes a detailed response from Linc Energy can be viewed on the ABC News website here