Approval of the Carmichael Mine – An Australian failure to understand and apply groundwater science.

In Environment, Exploration, Mine Site Rehabilition, Mineral Processing, Resource Extraction & Processing, Water & Environment, Water Management

As an expert witness called by a conservation group to assist the Court, I had the privilege of observing the legal battleground of the Queensland Land Court in action in 2015. I held high expectations and optimism that my knowledge would provide useful service to the decision-making process, and I felt a great honour to represent my chosen scientific discipline by contributing to a groundwater decision of international importance.

A critical issue within the case was whether excavating one of the world’s largest coal mines in close proximity to a nationally important wetland, fed by groundwater, would threaten the extinction of the associated Doongmabulla Springs and the endemic species that rely on them.

I feel compelled to offer hindsight on the case, now with the advantage of a year of rumination since the decision.

The science behind the approvals process of the Carmichael Coal Mine project should become an instrument of teaching to undergraduate students studying hydrogeology – for all the wrong reasons. There are only a handful of laws that hydrogeologists must understand and apply – Darcy’s Law, Bernoulli’s equation, conservation of mass, and a handful of others. These are taught to undergraduate students as the foundation of groundwater hydrology studies. Added to these are other concepts relating to mathematics, computer modelling, geology, chemistry and various other related disciplines that allow scientists to come to grips with the movement of water (and its constituents) beneath our feet.

The process of approving the Carmichael Mine involved the violation of several of these fundamental laws. The details of these violations require more space that this simple message can convey, but there are some basic ideas that I can pass by you to see if you share some of my concerns.

In drawing the final decision together, President MacDonald (the judge) stated the following in response to a critical piece of evidence in the case: “It appears to me to be logical that the spring flow would be proportionate to the upflow until the drawdown caused by head difference causes the artesian head to match a geomorphic threshold.” The key element of this statement is “It appears to me to be logical…” – the rest of the sentence is barely comprehensible for the hydrogeologically-uninitiated. I maintain (and can easily prove) that the science within the quoted statement was misconstrued and yet foundational to the final decision. Under cross-examination, my counterpart expert, acting for Adani, acknowledged the same error in the analysis relied upon by the judge in making this statement.

It is my humble opinion that the quoted statement, cached in terms of the decision-maker’s own logic, overturns fundamental laws of hydrogeology. Somehow, I failed to impress on the court undeniable theories of Conservation of Energy and Darcy’s Law, in the context of upward groundwater flow (spring flow). The decision-maker’s own logic has trumped my scientific advice to the court – spelled out in several reports and addressed at length under examination, cross-examination, and re-examination. Given a whiteboard and 15 min, I am confident that a classroom of undergraduate students armed with knowledge of Darcy’s Law and Bernoulli’s equation (Conservation of Energy) would come to terms with the fallacy of the quoted statement. It remains troubling to me that the Carmichael Mine decision was based, at least in part, on what seemed logical to a Land Court Judge, but in my view is in direct contravention to fundamental groundwater laws.

The Land Court’s recommendations and reasons were subsequently accepted by the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, the Queensland Minister for Mines and Energy, and the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment (then Greg Hunt). These regulators – who have advice of internal experts – are the ones ultimately responsible for the approvals of the mine in spite of these fundamental errors.

So where does this leave us? We have one of the world’s largest coal mines on our doorstep in close proximity to a set of springs that support endemic ecosystems, that are habitat for a threatened bird species, and that hold great importance to Indigenous Australians. The decision to approve the mine is underpinned by misconceptions and considerable uncertainty on the back of a deplorable lack of field measurements.

While scientifically hapless politicians make deals about new rail lines and dream of an economic reprieve in Queensland, I lie awake at night wondering why I spent the last 20 years becoming an expert in hydrogeology. It must be wonderfully peaceful to be uninformed of the basics of groundwater science.

Written by Adrian Werner, Professor of Hydrogeology, Flinders University

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