QUESTION: Health of gas industry workers

During Question Time Mark asked the Minister for Health and Wellbeing about the health of workers in the gas industry.


The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: Yesterday, the state government gave the final approval for a trial of underground coal gasification at Leigh Creek. This approval came despite overwhelming opposition from conservation groups, the Adnyamathanha traditional owners and concerns from locals about health impacts.

Back in 2015, Queensland government environmental inspectors reported that they had to receive medical attention while inspecting a trial underground coal gasification plant at Chinchilla in the Darling Downs. One government inspector was hospitalised. In evidence tendered to a Queensland court during the prosecution of the company Linc Energy for environmental harm, former workers described how working in the gas field affected their health. One worker, Timothy Ford, described how the gas burnt his eyes and nose and he would need to leave the plant after work to get fresh air because it made him feel sick.

'We were told to drink milk in the mornings and at the start of shift. We were also told to eat yoghurt,' he said. 'The purpose of this was to line our guts so the acid wouldn't burn us. We were not allowed to drink the tank water and were given bottled water.' Mr Ford said that he always felt lethargic, suffered infections and had shortness of breath. He said, 'During my time at the Linc site, would be the sickest I have been,' and, 'It is my belief that workplace was causing my sickness.'

My question of the minister is: what assurance can he give to government workers and to Leigh Creek energy workers that their health will not be harmed by underground coal gasification, which I remind the minister has been banned in Queensland because of the harm it causes to health and the environment?

ANSWER - The Hon. D.W. RIDGWAY (Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment): I thank the honourable member for his question. As I understand the honourable member's question, it raises issues in relation to occupational health and safety, which I understand is the responsibility of the Deputy Premier rather than myself. I will certainly take those questions on notice and seek a response for the honourable member.

Reply provided on 16th October 2018

The Hon David Ridgway MLC:

Since 1 July 2018, work health and safety has been the responsibility of the Treasurer and I have been advised that:

In South Australia, all persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs) are legally required under work health and safety legislation to provide a safe and secure workplace, including site monitoring for atmospheric contaminants and the management and control of risks to the health and safety of workers. Exposure of workers cannot exceed legislated workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants. A range of environmental and personal monitoring systems must be in place to meet this duty.

There are considerable differences between the Leigh Creek Gasification Plant and the Queensland underground coal gasification project undertaken by Line Energy, referred to by the honourable member. The main difference being; the shallow depth of the Queensland operations with a drilling depth of only 120 metres, versus Leigh Creek with a drilling depth of 500 metres; and its proximity to water aquifers, with none in the area of operation of Leigh Creek, as well as robust geographical containment features in Leigh Creek.

Since December 2017, SafeWork SA has recorded a number of proactive worksite visits and compliance audits at the Leigh Creek site. SafeWork SA inspectors have focussed their discussions on designs to eliminate or minimise health risks or mitigating the gas exposure risk by adherence to higher order controls; in this case the use of engineering containment controls to negate the risks of harmful exposures to hazardous chemicals.

It is also important to note that there is combined regulatory oversight of the Leigh Creek site, including the Petroleum and Geothermal Energy Act 2000, Environmental Protection Act 1993 as well as the Work Health and Safety Act 2012. This involves the Department for Energy and Mining as overall lead agency, with support on environmental safety provided by the Environment Protection Authority and workplace and worker safety by SafeWork SA.