Whistleblower says CSG royalties trumping toxic contamination risk
Ray Cowie and his wife Donna say they have been financially and emotionally broken by the Linc prosecution. (ABC News: Josh Robertson)
Whistleblowers in Queensland’s worst contamination scandal have accused the State Government of raising the risk that a burgeoning coal seam gas (CSG) industry will spread toxic chemicals left by Linc Energy’s failed gas project.
- Ray Cowie and colleague Gary Love say DES is not properly investigating the source of underground contamination at the former Linc site
- He says they have repeatedly warned environmental officials that chemical contamination could spread and affect local farmers
- Mr Cowie says he was “blown away” that CSG production had been allowed to continue nearby
Ray Cowie, a former Linc drilling engineer turned expert witness for the investigation and prosecution of the company, said he had felt compelled to become a whistleblower twice — this time against the Department of Environment and Science (DES).
Speaking out for the first time, Mr Cowie said he and former Linc hydrogeologist Gary Love had seen their careers in the gas industry destroyed because of their role in helping departmental officials over the environmental disaster.
Last year, the failed company was convicted and fined a record $4.5 million in a District Court trial that heard groundwater beneath its underground coal gasification (UCG) plant at Hopeland, near Chinchilla on the western Darling Downs, could take 20 years to recover from toxic gases allowed to escape through fractured rock.
Mr Cowie and Dr Love are two of a handful of experts on UCG in Australia, and worked with investigators and prosecutors to help convict Linc of serious environmental harm.
But they have since accused environmental officials of failing to properly investigate the source of underground contamination at the Hopeland site, saying it was a problem that could haunt local farmers for generations.
Mr Cowie said the Government had also ignored their repeated warnings that chemicals such as BTEX in groundwater could spread to the south and south-west of the contaminated site by signing off on CSG production nearby.
He said he was floored by the State Government’s decision to approve gas extraction in that area of the site months before it quietly created a CSG no-go zone to the north where there was actually less risk.
“To be honest, I was blown away and alarm bells rang straight away because it was a deja vu moment from what we told the Government,” he said.
“Knowing that this area is highly fractured, got connectivity, and here they are bringing in another risk to the area that may promote the migration of these contaminations.
“It’s not helping that containment model at all, it’s worsening it. The commercial drivers are outweighing the environmental drivers.”
Mr Cowie said CSG wells in the region targeting the same coal seams used by Linc would shift groundwater “like a bathtub” and potential contaminants with it.
But he said department officials had repeatedly indicated the river of royalties from CSG would trump a moratorium in a region where a single gas tenement could deliver $7 million a year into government coffers.
“We’ve had several frank conversations with people in the Government, but the response was they don’t want to harm other industries out there until this is proven,” he said.
“We said, ‘there’s a process to prove this or not prove it, but that process hasn’t happened’.”
The ABC has obtained a confidential July 2016 report to the Government in which Dr Love warned “groundwater flows away from the Linc site may be enhanced … by adjacent CSG operations”.
“An unfortunate situation exists where operational CSG fields are pumping the same coal seams down dip of the Linc site and along the major permeability direction … this may create a future problem,” Dr Love wrote.
He urged DES to launch a “drilling investigation of deep hydrocarbon contamination” and to do groundwater modelling on “potential influence of CSG operations to the west and south-west on contaminant transport”.
‘The most critical aspects of potential harm are unquantified’
Last November, Mr Cowie and Dr Love wrote to a senior environment official about the department’s “negligence in investigating environmental harm”.
“The high likelihood of potentially toxic residual hydrocarbon matter in the coal seam has been known to the investigation since its inception, and highlighted by us on multiple occasions,” the letter said.
“However no effort has been made prior to the [Linc] trial to actually drill the site and gather physical evidence to substantiate charges.
“The most critical aspects of potential harm remain unquantified and this has enormous potential to the remediation of the site and risks to local groundwater users.”
Mr Cowie said he was aware of evidence of deep underground contamination in CSG production areas more than 10 kilometres from the old Linc site.
“I have seen information from neighbouring exploration holes to give indications of [this],” he said.
Mr Cowie said the department had relied on experts to prove an “academic” case of environmental harm in court, but failed to drill for contaminated underground samples “to get that fingerprint, that murder weapon, the smoking gun”.
Mr Cowie says he knows of evidence about underground contamination 10 kilometres from the old Linc site. (ABC News: Nathan Morris)
“In the service station model, the fuel tank’s leaking — the first thing you go to is the leaking fuel tank, then you clean up the rest of it,” he said.
‘The Government just washed their hands of us’
Last September, Mr Cowie obtained whistleblower protection from DES under the Public Interest Disclosure Act.
He is poised to sue the department for compensation for technical assistance and lost income.
The ABC understands Dr Love has reached a confidential settlement with the department.
Mr Cowie said their dealings over the Linc issue had “just consumed our lives” and in hindsight he regretted ever getting involved.
“Run, Forrest Gump, run — the hell they put us through,” he said.
Mr Cowie, who was involved in the first major commercial CSG drill in Australia in 2001, said the work had dried up after the industry “deemed us as whistleblowers and then the Government just washed their hands of us”.
Ray Cowie (centre in blue shirt) helped supervise the team that conducted Australia’s first major commercial CSG drill in 2001. (Supplied)
“We were getting phone calls, sometimes daily, weekly, emails, meetings because they had to understand what was out there, and there’s only a handful of people that understood,” Mr Cowie said.
“We’d gone from getting phone calls daily, ‘you need to find this, do that, here’s a USB stick, work this out’, to nothing.”
His wife Donna Cowie said their comfortable life had been shattered and they were financially and emotionally broken.
Mr Cowie says he is blown away CSG wells in the region are targeting the same coal seams used by Linc. (Landline: Pip Courtney)
She said they had nearly lost their home and at times relied on food parcels from friends after Mr Cowie experienced a breakdown and depression from being unable to find work for more than two years.
“I’ve driven to work with my fist clenched around the steering wheel, bawling my eyes out and screaming at the top of my lungs, just wanting this whole thing to go away and to be over,” she said.
“Ray’s stood up, done the right thing. They’ve just used him and Gary for the information and then just tossed them aside like rubbish. I just think it’s absolutely disgraceful.”
DES responds to concerns
A DES spokesman said the investigation and prosecution of Linc Energy was “the largest and most complex ever conducted by the department”.
“In issuing the environmental authorities for the resources projects in the area of the former Linc Energy site, the department considered a range of input including rigorous scientific assessments and groundwater modelling. It also considered a number of public submissions,” he said.
“The department has built the environmental authorities for these projects based on the foundation of managing environmental risk and it has also taken action to ensure the health and safety of people on the former Linc Energy site and surrounding areas.”