Photo: Adani plans to drain groundwater that could feed Doongmabulla Springs, expert Matthew Currell said. (By Tom Jefferson (Lock the Gate))
One of the world's last unspoiled desert oases could permanently dry up under Adani's plan to drain billions of litres of groundwater a year for its Queensland mine, scientific experts say.
- Major scientific uncertainty around Adani's groundwater plan, RMIT expert says
- Complete loss of Doongmabulla Springs a possibility
- Queensland Government still assessing draft groundwater plan
The Doongmabulla Springs Complex, a one-square-kilometre expanse of nationally important wetlands near the proposed site of the Carmichael coal mine, faced serious risk under the latest Adani plan before the Queensland Government, hydrogeologists argued.
The source of the ancient springs remains in doubt, with two Federal Government groundwater studies conducted since Adani received Commonwealth environmental approval in 2014 unable to identify which of two underground aquifers feeds the threatened ecosystem.
RMIT environmental engineering expert Matthew Currell said Adani's groundwater plan, obtained by the ABC, ignored this "major scientific uncertainty" and falsely assumed its proposed mine and the springs tapped different sources.
The mining company plans to extract an average of up to 4.5 billion litres of water a year.
According to the "groundwater-dependent ecosystem management plan", which Adani submitted to the Queensland Department of Environment and Science for approval on January 23, the miner plans no further work to pinpoint the source of the springs.
Mr Currell said while it was the second groundwater plan put to government since last April, Adani had still not flagged any steps to solve the underground mystery, such as seismic surveys or drilling more deep bores.
He said he and colleagues, who conducted a 2017 academic study of the Carmichael mine and the springs, believed there was a "significant probability" Adani was wrong about the spring's source.
A 2016 federal science department study under the Lake Eyre Basin Springs Assessment Project suggested it was more likely the miner would drain the very aquifer that fed the Doongmabulla Springs, Mr Currell said.
"If that is the case, there is a possibility that the mining would cause complete loss of the springs," he said."Based on the current information that we have, I'd say that's more than a remote possibility.
"It would certainly lead to much greater impacts than have been predicted to date by Adani and its consultants regarding the impact of the mining on the springs."
Photo: The area for the proposed Carmichael mine site in central Queensland. (Supplied: Lock the Gate Alliance)
A spokesman for Queensland Environment and Science said it was "currently assessing the draft plan".
An Adani spokeswoman that a "thorough and transparent scientific investigation conducted as part of the Carmichael mine's approval process showed mining could be conducted without permanent damage to the Doongmabulla Springs".
"Groundwater is safely and appropriately managed at many mines throughout Australia using the checks and balances that will be in place at the Carmichael Mine," she said.
Queensland Resources Council chief executive Ian Macfarlane said the miner went through an "exhaustive" process to get its water permits.
This included input from an independent panel set up by the Gillard government "and obviously the resources of the Department of Natural Resources and Mines here in Queensland".
"They are the best scientific advice that's available and they are assessing the water plan as it fits within the environmental permit that's been granted," he said."I guess there's always going to be one other person who has a different view."
Mr Macfarlane said the Queensland Government could halt the mine's operations immediately if alarm bells rang.
"If the impact of taking the associated water from the pit is larger than expected, then the Government has the opportunity to basically stop the progress of the mine," he said.
"That is the safeguard but it's extraordinarily unlikely, bearing in mind that this has been done using the best geological science and advice available to both the Federal Government and the State Government."
Mr Currell said the information that highlighted the risk to the Doongmabulla Springs was "on the public record" and had been "well known to Adani and the people working for them".
"There's been ample opportunity for the mining company to go and collect that data and resolve this issue," he said.
Mr Currell also said Adani's contingency plans such as piping water in from elsewhere "may not be feasible".
Photo: Adani's plans could result in complete loss of the Doongmabulla Springs, Mr Currell said. (Supplied: Ton Jefferson (Lock the Gate))
Wangan and Jagalingou elder Adrian Burragubba, an Adani opponent within a group of traditional owners divided over the mine project, said the Doongmabulla Springs was "vitally important" to his people's law, custom and identity.
"Essentially, it's the dreaming story of the Rainbow Serpent," he said.
"It sustains law, custom, culture and it sustains us as a people and a society. Without our dreaming story, we will cease to exist."
Mr Currell's co-authors on the 2017 paper for the Journal of Hydrology included environmental lawyers Michael Berkman and Chris McGrath.
Mr Berkman became the Queensland Greens' first elected state MP last November.
Last December, Dr McGrath gave legal advice on behalf of the Australian Conservation Foundation to federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, suggesting Labor could revoke Adani's environmental approval.
This included running a study on the Doongmabulla Springs to see if new information since the mine's approval gave Labor grounds to scrap the licence.
Mr Shorten has since backed away from any suggestion of scrapping Adani's licence.