Is a controversial UCG project a lifeline for a dying town or an environmental hazard?
Leigh Creek’s population has fallen 90 per cent since the coal mine closed. (ABC News: Tony Hill)
The small South Australian community of Leigh Creek has been split by a controversial new energy project that could either save the town or prove to be an environmental hazard, depending on who you talk to.
Some fear an environmental disaster, pointing to problems that occurred with a similar gas project in Chinchilla in Queensland between 2007 and 2013.
“My biggest fear is we’re going to end up in a situation where it’s not safe to live here,” opponent Carrie-ann Smith told 7.30.
But local service station operator Breyten Ward is keen for the project to go ahead.
“It could get back to what it was in the ’80s, you know,” he told 7.30.
“Potentially it’d be great.”
UCG’s troubled history
At its peak in the mid-1980s, Leigh Creek had a population of about 2,500.
Today, after the nearby coal mine and town’s life blood closed three years ago, there are fewer than 200 people left.
Now a company called Leigh Creek Energy wants to extract gas from the old coal mine, using a technique called underground coal gasification (UCG).
With UCG, coal deep underground is ignited, releasing carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and hydrogen.
The gas mixture brought to the surface is known as syngas.
A trial is underway at the Leigh Creek site but UCG has a problematic history.
Earlier this year, a company called Linc Energy was found guilty of causing wilful and unlawful serious environmental harm at Chinchilla on Queensland’s Darling Downs.
The court found the company, which used UCG, allowed toxic gases, tars and oils to escape into the soil, groundwater and air.
Linc Energy was fined $4.5 million.
Queensland’s former environment minister, Steven Miles, described Chinchilla as the “biggest pollution event” in the state’s history.
UCG is now banned in Queensland.
Justyn Peters sees no connection between Linc Energy and the project in Leigh Creek. (ABC News: Tony Hill)
Leigh Creek Energy chairman Justyn Peters said the Chinchilla incident had unfairly tarnished the reputation of UCG.
“I can understand about people being afraid but I think that’s largely because they’ve been misinformed,” he told 7.30.
Mr Peters used to be the general manager of government and environmental affairs at Linc Energy.
He said Linc Energy was a “great company”.
“I don’t believe there is environmental damage caused at Chinchilla,” he said.
While Mr Peters was not involved in any way in the proceedings against Linc Energy, The Greens and other opponents of the South Australian UCG trial have raised Mr Peters’ connection to Linc Energy in Queensland as a concern.
But he argued that because the company was in liquidation, the accusations against Linc Energy were never challenged in court.
“I find it interesting that it’s a case where there was no defendant and it’s a case where the evidence of the prosecution was never tested,” he said.
“I find it offensive that people sit there and make a connection between my role at Linc Energy and the role here.”
Report ‘downplays’ UCG risk
The South Australian UCG trial site is close to the Leigh Creek township and another outback town, Copley.
Carrie-ann Smith was one of a group of residents who asked hydro-geologists from RMIT in Melbourne to review the local project’s environmental assessment report.
The hydro-geologists argued the environmental assessment report downplayed the risks.
“I would sum up UCG as being a very experimental technology, a technology for which there aren’t enough experts or information about, not enough to feel comfortable with it going ahead as a medium-risk project,” she said.
“Leigh Creek Energy project’s environmental impact report is highly optimistic.
“It uses the word ‘likely’ way too many times for us to feel reassured that this project has gone through the rigour to make us feel safe.”
Mr Peters said those views were “wrong” and that because of the Chinchilla experience, the South Australian Government had put it under extraordinary scrutiny before approving the local UCG trial.
He said the company had big plans and could use the UCG for power generation or making fertiliser, possibly creating hundreds of jobs.
“I find it very frustrating but we have to bide our time,” he said.
“We have to keep working to show that we’re safe, we have to keep working to prove it up, we have to keep working to raise funds but I know we’ll get there.”
‘We’ve got to do whatever we can to protect the land’
Traditional owner, Vince Coulthard, says there is an opportunity to rehabilitate the mine area. (ABC News: Tony Hill)
The Adnyamathanha people, who hold native title around Leigh Creek, recently failed in a court bid to stop the project.
Vince Coulthard from the Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association said the area had significant cultural heritage.
In the dreaming story, Yurlu started a fire which created the coal at Leigh Creek.
“There’s an opportunity, a small window of opportunity, for our people to start putting healing back into the Yurlu’s storyline by rehabilitating the mine area and that’s what my people want to do,” he told 7.30.
“What might be a desert, semi-desert area, it still has beauty, native flora and fauna that’s important to the whole ecosystem out here.
“We’ve got to do whatever we can to protect it.”
Leigh Creek Service Station operator Breyten Ward is a supporter of the gas project (ABC News: Tony Hill)
Breyten Ward thinks it’s too late for that.
“We’ve had a coal mine here for 50 to 60 years … it’s pretty ordinary out there,” he said.
“The damage out there has already been done.
“My mind’s open with it, you know, it won’t go ahead if it’s going to hurt anyone.
“The company don’t want to do that, I don’t want to see that happen.”