Australian land court rules against Acland coal mine expansion

The Queensland Land Court in Australia has recognised the environmental impact that an expansion of the Acland open-cut coal mine would have on the local community and environment and has recommended that the expansion should not go ahead.

It will, however, be the Queensland government that makes the final decision, and it’s a government that is rampantly in favour of the extractive industries.

The Darling Downs, where the Acland mine is located, is already devastated by coal seam gas exploitation and there is a huge campaign against Adani’s plans to build a coal mine in central Queensland that would be the largest coal mine in Australia, and one of the biggest in the world.

In the case of the Acland expansion, the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (EHP) will decide about the Environmental Authority amendment application, and the Queensland Minister for Natural Resources and Mines, Anthony Lynham, will rule on the mining lease application.

The New Hope Group company New Acland Coal, which owns the mine, wants to expand its operation onto 3,668 hectares of agricultural land, and continue extracting coal for an additional 12 years to 2029. Annual coal production from the mine would increase from 5.2 million tonnes to 7.5 million tonnes.

The Acland mine, near Toowoomba, has already caused severe environmental damage and closed down the town of Acland.  Once a thriving community, the town now has only one stalwart permanent resident, Glenn Beutel, known as “the last man standing”.

Beutel has refused to sell his properties in Acland to NAC. These include a home that has been in his family for generations, and a property he rents out.

The federal government gave its environmental approval for the New Acland Stage 3 coal mine expansion in December 2016, but the Oakey Coal Action Alliance (OCAA), which is a group of more than sixty farmers and other objectors, continued their lengthy battle against the mine and challenged the expansion in one of the biggest environmental public interest cases in Australian history.

The land court case involved about forty community objectors, 27 expert witnesses, 38 lay witnesses, and 14 active parties. There were 99 hearing days, two site inspections, 1,892 exhibits, and 7,452 pages of court transcripts.

The case ran from March 7 to October 5, 2016, then was re-opened at New Hope’s request in April this year for the submission of more evidence about groundwater.

Both Lynam and the EHP must consider the court’s recommendation when making their decisions.

New Acland Coal would also require an associated water licence under the 2000 Water Act for the expansion.

Solicitor Jo-Anne Bragg from the Environmental Defenders Office in Queensland, who represents the OCAA, said: “After a historic battle by local farmers and landholders against this mining giant the independent land court has recommended refusal of the Stage 3 New Acland coal mine expansion.”

Bragg said that Wednesday’s win highlighted the significance of the courts and of “community objection rights in holding government and projects accountable under the law”.

She said the case highlighted what could be achieved by hardworking members of the community “who band together against all odds to challenge deep-pocketed mining companies”.

She added: “Without this case, the costs and benefits of this project would not have been scrutinised before the independent land court, and evidence including faulty groundwater modelling, increased noise and dust risks and complaints, and over-inflated job figures, would not have been exposed.”

Bragg said all eyes were now on Lynham and the EHP as to whether they would respect the land court’s decision, “which has thoroughly reviewed the evidence and considered submissions from all sides”.

Paul King from the OCAA said: “This is an incredibly important outcome for farmers and communities on the Darling Downs and it vindicates our long struggle to protect our district from this risky coal mining expansion.

“By recommending against the Acland Stage 3 mine the land court has recognised that the impact on our water supplies, our farm businesses, and the health of our families are too severe.”

King said the Stage 3 expansion had already been rejected once by the Newman LNP government in 2012.

The LNP government stated at that time that it was inappropriate to expand the mine in the State’s southern food bowl, King said, but it later supported the expansion.

The Queensland Labour Party had also made an election commitment for an independent review of the impacts of the revised Stage 3 proposal on the local community, he said.

“We’re calling on the Queensland Government to honour its commitment and implement the land court outcome in full by rejecting Acland Stage 3 outright and putting an end to a struggle that has hurt so many in our community,” King added.

“OCAA’s members and other landholders have had their lives on hold dealing with this coal mine for ten long years and now we need absolute certainty that the mine will not proceed.

“We won’t rest until the Queensland government rejects this mine and puts in place long-term protections for our agriculturally rich region.”

The land court heard evidence that the existing mine has caused extensive hardship, damaged community members’ physical and mental health and livelihoods, and eroded the once-thriving and cohesive rural community.

Objectors say any further expansion would be an unsustainable blow to the community and the region.

They cite the disturbance of more than 1,361 hectares of strategic cropping land, a potential drop in groundwater levels of up to 47 metres on the site and one metre or more over 21 kilometres around the site, a further degradation of air quality in the area, and increased noise.

The land court heard that, for a decade, New Hope Coal effectively ignored the community’s numerous complaints about coal dust and noise levels, and their requests for data.

There were more than one hundred complaints to New Hope and thirty to the state environment department.

The court heard the following evidence:

  • there was faulty and unreliable groundwater modelling, which potentially placed farmers’ critical groundwater supplies at risk;
  • there was a high risk of air pollution limits being exceeded;
  • the original environmental impact statement for the project stated that the expansion would yield an average of 2,953 jobs per year, yet, in court, this figure was reduced to 680 net jobs nationally; and
  • an estimated 500 million AUD (about 372 million US$) in royalties from the expansion would flow to the coal company and a small number of property owners instead of to the Queensland government, which would receive just 7 percent. Taxpayers would, therefore, lose out heavily.

In his 459-page ruling, land court member Paul Smith said that nearly every aspect of the Stage 3 expansion was contested.

New Acland Coal (NAC) stated that it was “a good corporate citizen playing an important role in the local community”, he said, and the objectors argued the opposite.

“NAC says that the Stage 3 operation will be of lasting benefit to the community by way of continuation and expansion of employment and regional economic benefit.

“The objectors say that principles of intergenerational equity should apply, and that the short term benefits brought by Stage 3 are far outweighed by the damage not only to the land impacted by the mine but those lands surrounding the mine for hundreds and even thousands of years to come.”

Smith said there was emerging evidence that short-term and long-term exposure to particulate matter, particularly PM2.5 particles, was dangerous to health and there was no evidence of a safe level of exposure to these particles.

“Every person, whether they be a mine worker or their spouse or their children or their grandparents, or people who rent properties from NAC or APC¹, should not be exposed to unsafe levels of particulate matter.”

In his conclusion, however, he said that, he was satisfied that, provided amendments were made to the draft Environmental Authority, particularly for online real time monitoring, air quality and dust issues could be appropriately managed.

As regards noise, he said that his findings were inconsistent with the coordinator-general’s stated conditions, so his only option was to recommend refusal of the draft Environmental Authority.

Smith said that, on an economic level alone, the revised Stage 3 project was of greater value than agricultural pursuits, even over the long term.

He stated, however, that, in key areas, NAC’s own experts agreed that there were major shortcomings in the current groundwater modelling.

“I was also highly concerned regarding the modelling of faulting and other aspects of the groundwater studies undertaken to date … Groundwater considerations were such that the revised Stage 3 project should not proceed given the risks to the surrounding landholders and the poor state of the current model.”

During the course of the land court hearings, Smith said, a number of references were made to the Australian classic comedy film “The Castle”. He likened the situation portrayed in that film to that of Mr Beutel: “a little person trying to protect his property from a corporate giant.”

In many ways, Smith said, the truth of Beutel’s positon was far in excess of the fiction of “The Castle”.

In his ruling, Smith said: “The fact that Acland as a town in effect no longer exists cannot be dismissed, in my view, as a simple sideline to the matters in dispute.

“There is no doubt that there is quite a level of angst between NAC and the objectors, and in my view that angst on the part of the objectors has been significantly contributed to by the actions of NAC in causing Acland to functionally no longer exist.”

Pending the release of the court’s decision, the New Hope Corporation suspended trading in its shares on Wednesday.

It said in a statement: “The securities of New Hope Corporation Limited (the “Company”) will be placed in Trading Halt Session State at the request of the Company, pending the release of an announcement by the Company.

“Unless ASX² decides otherwise, the securities will remain in Trading Halt Session State until the earlier of the commencement of normal trading on Friday, 2 June 2017 or when the announcement is released to the market.”

The shares plummeted when the halt was lifted after the court’s ruling was announced.

The company says it remains committed to delivering the third phase of the New Acland mine.

  1. The Acland Pastoral Company
  2. The Australian Securities Exchange