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OPINION PIECE: Drew Hutton, President of Lock the Gate Alliance

World Water Day highlights sustainability problems 

World Water Day on Sunday should give us pause for thought here on the driest continent on earth. But here in Queensland, preference is still given to mining and coal seam gas enterprises with limited life, over the long-term need to save our precious water resources and the most productive agricultural land.

Presently farming communities have no protection of the most productive agricultural land from urban and infrastructure development, mining and coal seam gas projects. This land will be lost forever, as will the farmers, at a time when such land should become even more precious. In other words, sustainability has taken a back seat to social and commercial use. 

Queensland’s rush to approve unconventional gas projects like coal seam gas and underground coal gasification is presenting the state with some serious challenges. The two great resources of this country – agricultural soils and water – are both threatened by these industries and there is an alarming lack of knowledge among regulators of what these impacts are likely to be on our soils and water and how these impacts can be satisfactorily mitigated.

Some alarming things are happening at a small, farming community called Hopeland, a few kilometres outside the western Darling Downs town of Chinchilla. Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (EHP) officers investigating possible breaches at Linc Energy’s underground coal gasification (UCG) facility at Hopeland found high levels of hydrogen sulphide, carbon monoxide and hydrogen in the rich, flood plain soils.

These toxic and flammable gases, which were present up to two metres from the soil surface, should not be present in such amounts and are, typically, products of an underground coal fire.  UCG produces a mixture of gases called syngas created when the coal at the front of the chamber is set on fire and steam and oxygen are piped past this burn. The biggest danger from UCG is that contaminants can escape from the chamber that has been cut into the coal seam and work their way, via cracks in the coal and surrounding rock, into the atmosphere, the aquifers and the soil.

Numerous Linc Energy workers and nearby farmers have complained of foul-smelling gases coming from the facility. The big worry for investigators was whether or not the burn had broken out of the chamber and this was the source of the contaminating gases.

Investigators are also confronted by findings of contaminants many kilometres from the Linc Energy facility prompting local landholders to speculate that the de-pressurisation of the coal seam aquifer by the nearby coal seam gas operations was creating a “super highway” for gases to move through the district for long distances.

The exact causes of this situation will take a long time to determine but some things are clear. Firstly, this is a major pollution incident, possibly one of the worst we have seen in many years. Secondly, it presents a potentially serious threat to water quality in underground water systems and the nearby Chinchilla weir – the town’s water supply. Thirdly, it presents a major threat to the rich, productive soils on this section of the Condamine flood plain.

The World Congress of Soil Science held in Brisbane in 2010 focused on the increasing loss of agricultural land and of fresh water and aquifer supplies around the world at a time when the population continues to expand. Australia’s food production should become ever more important for both our requirements and source of income from exports.

We must retain our most productive agricultural land and fresh water supplies for future generations of Australians and provide some certainty for farming and rural communities, not sacrifice them for short-term gain for so few.

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