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Environmental Quality Council rejects challenge to underground coal gasification permit

A project that proposes setting fire to deep coal seams in order to produce fuel is moving forward. At a hearing last week, the Environmental Quality Council rejected arguments that Linc Energy’s proposed underground coal gasification project would contaminate drinking water supplies in Campbell County. But as Wyoming Public Radio’s Stephanie Joyce reports, concerns linger about the safety of the technology.

STEPHANIE JOYCE: Underground coal gasification involves drilling thousands of feet below the surface into deep coal seams, and then igniting them, and capturing the gases that are produced. It’s been touted as 'clean coal technology,' and a way to recover otherwise uneconomic deposits. But there’s only one commercial facility in the world, and some past test projects in Wyoming haven’t gone well.

David Camp is with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, one of the agencies that was involved in test projects in Campbell County in the 1970s.

DAVID CAMP: From an environmental point of view, our Hoe Creek site turned into a mess.

JOYCE: Camp says the mistakes at Hoe Creek, which is about twenty miles from Gillette, resulted in groundwater contamination and sinkholes. A multimillion dollar, decades-long cleanup project is still wrapping up. But Camp says the technology is site-specific, and has come a long way since then.

CAMP: And if you choose a good site, and operate properly, you will not contaminate valuable or protected groundwater supplies. You will leave a small amount of contamination locally, in your process area.

JOYCE: Linc Energy’s test project is supposed to show regulators that it’s able to live up to that promise. The company says their process is proven and safe.

But not everyone is convinced. The coal Linc wants to burn is in an aquifer that would be contaminated by the process, and then, Linc says, cleaned up. Shannon Anderson is an attorney for the Powder River Basin Resource Council. She says the promises are just that -- promises.

SHANNON ANDERSON: Underground coal gasification is a very unproven technology. There’s lots of concerns about both containment of that contamination during the process, and then also after the process is complete, what does the aquifer look like, and can you restore the aquifer back to its pre-gasification conditions, which is a requirement of state law.

JOYCE: But the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality thinks it can be done. The agency recently issued a permit exempting the aquifer Linc wants to mine from the protections of the Safe Drinking Water Act. The Resource Council challenged that permit, which landed them in front of the Environmental Quality Council.

DAVID SEARLE: Docket number 13-4804, Linc Energy Operations Inc.

JOYCE: In a basement room at the Herschler Building in Cheyenne, teams of attorneys representing the state, Linc and the Resource Council assembled to present evidence and call witnesses. The state went first, arguing that Linc’s project would not irreversibly damage the Wyodak aquifer.

The DEQ’s Don Fischer testified that the exemption applies only to a small portion of the aquifer, in a part not currently used for drinking water.

DON FISCHER: They basically asked for about an eighty-acre surface area exemption at a depth of about 1100 feet.

JOYCE: Fischer said the aquifer isn’t suitable as a water supply because of its depth and yield. But on cross examination, he acknowledged that the state hasn’t actually done an analysis of the potential for future use, saying DEQ is only required to consider current use when granting an exemption.

Anderson, with the Powder River Basin Resource Council, says that’s problematic, especially considering the water challenges facing the region.

ANDERSON: You know, the future use and potential of this aquifer is, we think, pretty substantial. We have, in Wyoming, very limited sources of water. We are an arid, dry state, and we firmly believe that we’ve got to save what we’ve got.

JOYCE: But the EQC ultimately rejected the Resource Council’s arguments, and voted 6-1 to uphold the aquifer exemption. It now goes to the federal Environmental Protection Agency for its approval.

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