There is now nothing standing between Indian mining giant Adani and the coal buried in Queensland’s Galilee Basin.

By approving the Adani’s groundwater management plan on June 13, the Queensland government has given the final green light to the company’s controversial Carmichael coal mine. Here are six questions to explain the decision.

What did the Queensland government just approve?
The Queensland Department of Environment and Science approved the project’s Groundwater Dependent Ecosystem Management Plan, which had earlier won the approval of the Queensland federal government.

This plan outlines Adani’s proposed strategies to protect ecosystems that depend on groundwater, such as the Doongmabulla Springs wetland, which some experts have warned could be destroyed by the project. The plan’s approval at a state level removes the final legislative hurdle standing in the mine’s way.

Didn’t the Australian federal government suffer a legal setback this week relating to the mine? Why is the mine still clear to proceed?
On June 12, in response to a legal challenge by the Australian Conservation Foundation, the federal government conceded in the federal court that it had failed to properly consider public submissions in passing judgement on Adani’s North Galilee Water Scheme.

This scheme concerns Adani’s plans to take water from the Suttor River to the east of the mine, for mining operations.

The federal government will now need to reappraise this proposal. But the approval to take river water does not impact Adani’s ability to start mine construction.

Has Adani made significant changes to its groundwater plan in light of scientific criticism?
In February 2019, CSIRO and Geoscience Australia advised the Queensland government that they did not consider Adani’s groundwater plan adequate for assessing the risk to local springs. They recommended more research drilling, monitoring and analysis, to better understand the source aquifer for the springs.

On June 7, CSIRO, the Australian federal government agency responsible for scientific research, and Geoscience Australia responded to a series of questions from the Queensland government. They effectively reiterated their earlier concerns, including that Adani’s groundwater model is not fit for the purpose of assessing the mine’s likely impacts on the springs.

Among a raft of suggested changes to the groundwater plan, they recommended that Adani make firmer commitments to protecting the springs. However, Adani has not strengthened this part of the plan and actions required to address impacts to the springs remain vague.

Adani has made some changes to the investigations it is required to complete within one to two years. But there appears to be no new scientific work or findings in the most recent version of the groundwater plan to address scientific uncertainties or flaws in the modelling, as pointed out by CSIRO, Geoscience Australia and others.

The Doongmabulla springs will be impacted by Carmichael mine. Credit: Stop Adani/Flickr
The Doongmabulla springs will be impacted by Carmichael mine. Credit: Stop Adani/Flickr

Does Adani know where the Doongmabulla Springs water comes from?
No. Adani and the Queensland government seem relatively confident that the source aquifer for the springs is a geological unit called the Clematis Sandstone. But the Queensland government acknowledges that some uncertainty remains. The CSIRO and Geoscience Australia advice make clear the springs could, in fact, flow from multiple sources, which is in backed by a consortium of other experts. Adani has been asked to determine this during the first two years of the mine’s operation.

So have the scientific concerns been satisfied or not?
The final groundwater plan is based on science that has been shown to be questionable and containing crucial errors and data gaps, as indicated in the CSIRO/Geoscience Australia reviews from both February and June.

The plan also fails to consider key scientific issues that the writers of this article raised in collaboration with colleagues from other universities. The shortcomings in the science raised by a range of scientists from multiple universities and agencies will, therefore, remain unaddressed until after mining activity begins, risking irreversible harm to the Doongmabulla Springs.

We believe that uncertainties in the future groundwater impacts from the mine are high, but could have been addressed if Adani had acted upon the advice it has repeatedly received over the past six years.

After so many government approvals processes, court rulings, and legal challenges does Adani truly have permission to start digging now?
Yes. Adani’s excavations will mark the start of a highly uncertain experiment into the effects of mega-scale disturbance to a natural groundwater flow system and the ecosystems that depend on it. Time will tell whether the benefits of the mine warrant the impacts it will cause.

Adrian Werner is a professor of Hydrogeology at Flinders University. Matthew Currell is an associate professor in Environmental Engineering at the School of Engineering, RMIT University.

This article first appeared in The Conversation.