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Experts urge caution over Leigh Creek project's environmental risks

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Two groundwater experts criticised aspects of an environmental impact report for the controversial Leigh Creek underground coal gasification pilot mine just days before the new Minister for Energy and Mining issued environmental objective approval.

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Associate Professor Gavin Mudd and Dr Matthew Currell, both of RMIT University, sent a letter to the lawyers of environmental group William Light Foundation earlier this month outlining their concerns about the Leigh Creek Energy Project’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR).

William Light Foundation, which is opposed to the project, is currently seeking a Federal Court injunction to stop the controversial practice of underground coal gasification (UCG) mining in Leigh Creek.

In the letter, obtained by InDaily, Mudd and Currell said the Leigh Creek UCG pilot project warranted “careful scrutiny” and “caution”, and that an independent expert review needed to be a key priority.

“We believe the assumptions adopted in the EIR are invariably optimistic and are used to justify a low project risk – yet these assumptions need careful scrutiny as there could be significant environmental risks if these are proven wrong during the demonstration project,” states the letter, dated April 11.

“Given the very significant risks and recent problems associated with UCG… the proposal clearly warrants careful scrutiny prior to any approval being granted.”

The letter gave particular mention to the potential for gaseous and fluid leaks from the combustion chamber, which according to Mudd and Currell could occur via leaking wells or fractures or faults in the geology.

“The EIR states that the proposed demonstration site is within 100 metres of a fault… Why is 100 metres judged a ‘safe’ distance for UCG activities from such faults?” the letter asks.

“If there is a well fault or failure during operations, the consequences could be very difficult to manage and/or remediate in time to prevent gas or fluid migration.

“Similarly, the monitoring plan for groundwater, soil gas and ambient air quality monitoring is in our view poorly developed.”

Mudd and Currell penned the letter after they were approached by “some representatives of the Leigh Creek and nearby community” to review the key scientific issues concerning groundwater in the Environmental Impact Report.

Minister for Energy and Mining Dan Van Holst Pellekaan issued a Statement of Environmental Objectives approval for the “pre-commercial demonstration stage” of the Leigh Creek Energy Project last Thursday.

The Minister’s approval allows Leigh Creek Energy, the company in charge of the underground coal gasification project, to proceed with sending three separate “activity notifications” to the State Government for approval, after which it would be able to produce the first gas as part of a demonstration phase.

Leigh Creek Energy managing director Phil Staveley said in a statement last week that the Minister’s approval marked “a major milestone” for the pilot project, which is anticipated to start producing gas by the end of June.

Leigh Creek Energy Project progress chart / LCK

Conservation groups and the Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association have condemned the project, citing the Linc Energy environmental disaster in Queensland as a reason not to proceed with UCG mining in South Australia.

Linc Energy was found guilty earlier this month of causing serious environmental harm by polluting the southern Queensland’s Darling Downs farming region with hazardous contaminants.

Conservation SA chief executive Craig Wilkins told InDaily he was “deeply disappointed” that Van Holst Pellekaan had issued the environmental objectives approval for the Leigh Creek project, but said the Energy Minister had previously told him that there were still numerous steps to go before the mine was granted full approval.

“The fact that there has been a woeful track record around the world for this type of mining activity shows that it’s just the wrong option for Leigh Creek,” Wilkins said.

“It’s shown to be a very risky procedure with enormously negative climate change implications and we simply can’t afford – if we’re going to meet our Paris climate change agreement – to keep on approving this type of very greenhouse-hungry project.

“It’s just not needed in South Australia because there are just so many different options available around energy here.”

Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association (ATLA) CEO Vince Coulthard said the group was “disgusted” with the Minister for signing off on the approval.

“As I understand it from the Minister, that does not give them permission to start the pilot plant, but it is certainly another decision in their favour,” he said.

“Our land has been desecrated enough; the destruction and poison must stop.

“I note the new Premier has stopped fracking in the south-east, so why has he not stopped this toxic project in our area?”

Leigh Creek Energy is bound to an agreement with ATLA to ensure the protection of Aboriginal Cultural Heritage at the proposed site.

In a statement to InDaily, Van Holst Pellekaan said he had confidence in the integrity of the environmental impact process.

“We have set the strictest conditions proposed anywhere in the world before this pilot project could proceed to the next phase,” he said.

“I invite the RMIT academics to submit to the next round of community, environmental and Aboriginal heritage consultation on this project.”

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