Coal gas contamination sparks fears of disaster
Rob Edwards,The Ferret
Revelations that an underground coal gas plant in Australia is facing prosecution for allegedly contaminating over 300 square kilometres of farmland have sparked fears that the same could happen in Scotland.
The Queensland government has launched a £3 million criminal court action accusing a mining company of leaking toxic chemicals and potentially explosive gases into the soil, water and air from a facility at Chinchilla, west of Brisbane. The charge sheet, seen by The Ferret, says the contamination is “extensive and widespread” and that the harm caused is “irreversible”.
The technique of burning coal underground to extract gas for commercial use in Australia, known as underground coal gasification (UCG), is now planned for the Firth of Forth and the Solway Firth. Community and environmental campaigners fear it could be disastrous, and are stepping up their demands for UCG to be included in the Scottish Government’s fracking moratorium.
The companies proposing UCG in Scotland, however, say that their technologies will be different, deeper underground and safer. The Australian firm facing the contamination charges strongly denies them.
In February the Queensland government imposed a 314 square kilometre “caution zone” around experimental UCG plants operated by Linc Energyin Chinchilla between 1999 and 2013. Digging below two metres is banned because of risks from explosions and pollution.
The government has charged that Linc “caused serious environmental harm”. The adverse effects included releasing contaminants to the soil and atmosphere in concentrations “above the explosive limits” and “above prescribed health and environmental investigation limits”, it alleged.
They wilfully and knowingly undertook the operation, and they knew this could lead to catastrophic events.JON BLACK, QUEENSLAND GOVERNMENT
The company could face multi-million pound fines and senior executives could go to jail, according to Jon Black, a senior environment official with the Queensland government. “They wilfully and knowingly undertook the operation, and they knew this could lead to catastrophic events,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).
According to a leaked expert report, air injected under pressure into underground coal seams caused surrounding rock to fracture. When the coal was set alight, gases such as methane, carbon monoxide, hydrogen and hydrogen sulphide spread through the ground.
ABC also reported that four government investigators were hospitalised with suspected gas poisoning after testing soil at the site in March. High levels of carbon monoxide were detected in the blood of one, who was said to have suffered prolonged nausea.
The UK Coal Authority has granted two companies licences to investigate UCG in five areas around the Firth of Forth, and a sixth area in the Solway Firth.