How a village was swallowed by a coal mine
By Eve Sinton
After fighting New Hope Coal for years, the tiny Darling Downs town of Acland was devoured by the New Acland coal mine, while surrounding farmers battled on in court to keep the miners off their land.
The Oakey Coal Action Alliance was disappointed this week when a court ruling appears to have returned the whole case back to square one. It is likely the entire case will have to be re-heard.
The alliance has called for the Queensland government to refuse a groundwater licence for the Acland Stage 3 coal expansion, after the Court of Appeal ruled on Tuesday (September 10) the Land Court did not have the power to consider groundwater impacts from mining.
The Court of Appeal in Brisbane ruled on technical grounds that the legal mechanism for assessing groundwater impacts of mining should be via the water licencing process rather than the grant of an environmental authority.
As a result, the two previous Land Court decisions have also been set aside on other grounds, and the case will have to be re-heard in its entirety.
The appeal court also found Land Court Member Paul Smith’s impartiality was compromised when he cited the movie The Castle when characterising the fight of a land owner as “little person” trying to protect his property from a “corporate giant”.
Project should have been stopped
Oakey Coal Action Alliance secretary Paul King said the project should never have been allowed to proceed due to the harm it would inflict on local farmers, the environment, and the Oakey economy.
“This is a very difficult outcome for local farmers who have lived with this threat for ten long years and now face more uncertainty due to this technicality, while they struggle with a worsening drought and reduced groundwater supply,” he said.
“The farming land around Oakey is classed in the top 1.5% in Queensland. It is madness that it should be destroyed for the sake of a temporary coal mine. This country has been farmed continuously for 150 years and we produce 10million litres of milk each year.”
The Environmental Defenders Office Qld has been representing Oakey Coal Action Alliance in court. CEO and Solicitor Jo-Anne Bragg said:
“This is a disappointing result for the local farmers who are seeking to protect their land and their livelihoods at a time of severe drought and fire risk.
“The land around Acland on the Darling Downs is among the best 1.5% of agricultural land in Queensland, and this mine puts the groundwater that supplies that land at risk.
“Now the Court of Appeal has found the Land Court has no jurisdiction to consider groundwater impacts, the community may need to return to court without the ability to argue this critical issue in relation to the mining lease.
“This shows the urgent need for legislative change to clarify the law and ensure groundwater impacts can be properly considered in all mining objections as part of evaluating the costs and benefits.
“This is a crucial issue for farming communities. Without legislative change to cover all mining proposals, Queensland farmers will be left with one hand tied behind their back in the battle to protect their land for their families and future generations of agriculturalists.”
New Hope strikes back
Meanwhile, New Hope Coal unsuccessfully tried to bully the government into approving the mine’s expansion before the court case was completed – giving officials a deadline of midnight, September 7 for the announcement.
When that failed, they started redundancy talks with employees and launched a full-frontal media assault on activists and the Queensland government. Their Murdoch media propaganda campaign that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
Before the court announced its decision, New Hope had told the Courier-Mail that the government’s refusal to approve the New Acland Stage 3 mine, due to the case, created a blueprint for green activists to follow in order to hold up state-significant projects.
Federal coal minister Matt Canavan said the tactics were straight out of activist playbooks that directed ‘foreign-funded anti-coal groups’ to disrupt and delay projects to erode public and political support for the coal industry.
Full page ad, full page sob story
New Hope Group took out a full-page ad in the Courier-Mail on September 7 and got a supporting full-page sympathy story in the same paper.
The story was sheer propaganda, interviewing at length two ‘quiet Australian’ workers who may lose their jobs. FFB is sympathetic to people losing jobs – but every coal mine runs out of coal eventually, and the jobs are inherently temporary.
The story only presented New Hope’s case, with no mention of why the neighbouring community opposed the expansion, or the serious water issues arising from further mining.
It was rounded out with economic fluff straight out of the Queensland Resources Council’s playbook. The fact that only 1.2% of jobs in Queensland are provided by coal was overlooked.
“That New Hope is a good corporate citizen is not really a matter of contention,” the story said.
New Hope Coal’s bad reputation
Yet New Hope Coal has a bad reputation with neighbours for air pollution from mine dust.
Last year it was caught drilling 27 illegal bores outside a designated area and fined $3,152 – a mere a 20th of the maximum fine for a single infringement.
The company’s parent New Hope Group made $160m in after-tax profit in the six months to January 2019.
Details of the investigation’s findings and the fine were never made public – by the state or the miner – and were uncovered in a tranche of documents obtained under Freedom of Information laws by Lock the Gate.
The documents detail how New Hope Group increased production at the mine to meet supply contracts, and that as a result blasting and loading operations were being conducted with 200 metres of adjacent landholders.
New Acland was fined for breaching noise limits at the mine and remains under investigation in relation to allegations it mined outside its approvals.
Media attitude reversed
Back in 2011, Murdoch’s The Australian took a very different approach to New Hope’s ambitions.
Journalist Heather Brown wrote on July 16:
The state government is set to decimate 7,000ha of fertile farmland when it rubber-stamps stage three of the Acland mine, enabling New Hope Coal to more than double its production from four million tonnes to 10 million tonnes a year for the next 20 years.
There are more bad days to come. New Hope Coal and the Toowoomba Regional Council plan to steal the sacred Acland War Memorial from the arms of its community, and they still have to figure out a way to remove local hero Glen Beutel, who refuses to allow his town to disappear under the bulldozers.
Brown’s story was published after almost all properties in Acland were bought up by the mine operators in 2008, with the intention that they be demolished as the open cut mine expanded into the town site.
The Land reported that 64 families had their community destroyed.
Even the church was ripped off its stumps and trucked away.
Only the Acland War Memorial remains and is cared for by Acland’s single remaining resident, Glen Beutel, who refused to sell. Each Anzac Day a service is held, with supporters including a group of Knitting Nannas showing their defiance to the destruction.
The mine ceases work during the service and delivers a floral tribute, but gets a cold shoulder from those present.
Otherwise, it’s 24/7 blasting, digging, noise and dust.
But now New Acland’s pit has reached the fence, and half of the 300 workers may be retrenched by the end of the year.
The judgment by the Court of Appeal leaves the way forward unclear, with the court asking both sides to file submissions on the next move in the next fortnight.
Taking a lead from Adani, New Hope and its allies are on the war-path, bullying the government and attacking ‘greenies’.
It’s unlikely, at this time, any Murdoch journalist will write as Heather Brown did, in 2011:
Welcome to Queensland, the place where the “fair go” has gone AWOL and governments, councils and their cronies collude to make mine-owners richer, and the poor are left to fend for themselves …
For them, farmers and communities have become inconsequential in the rush for coal and gas royalties and, with a brand of bureaucratic bullying borrowed from the Soviets, farmers have seen their sovereignty stripped while they are driven off their land.
In the current climate, when miners set their own deadlines for approvals and marshal the formidable forces of the Murdoch-dominated media to their cause, there will be no more stirring words like Brown’s from 2011.
Even if future court cases favour the community over miners, there will be pressure to change laws and a push for continuing destruction.