A Queensland town’s decades-long legal fight against being subsumed by a coalmine could end next week as the case reaches the High Court of Australia. But not before a final turn of the screws. By Rick Morton.
How one mine ate a town
Last week, New Hope Coal made a final bid to have a community organisation liquidated – thus removing the final obstacle to a coalmine that would essentially subsume a once-proud town on the Darling Downs in Queensland.
The action began with a letter sent to Oakey Coal Action Alliance (OCAA) president Aileen Harrison in December last year. It was from Clayton Utz partner Brett Cook and asked why the coalminer should not consider seeking costs against her personally, as well as OCAA’s secretary, Paul King, rather than from the organisation as an entity.
In the letter, New Hope argued OCAA was simply an “alter ego”.
“Our client also foreshadows its intention to consider seeking non-party costs orders against you personally in relation to the appeal commenced by OCAA in the High Court of Australia,” Cook wrote.
It was a warning shot, a last-ditch attempt by New Hope to stop the persistent objectors to its 3668-hectare New Acland Coal (NAC) mine expansion, a project that would produce 7.5 million tonnes of coal a year.
The company says it was only trying to recover $736,000 in costs, plus possibly the same again for earlier legal action.
A win would have terminated the final avenue for appeal against the mine, which is now just 500 metres from the town of Acland, but the case was adjourned by Queensland’s Supreme Court on Tuesday.
And with that, OCAA’s High Court challenge will go ahead next Friday – the group hoping the court will halt a decision to let the New Acland mine expand.
New Hope’s legacy in Acland stretches back long before this latest legal scrap.
Since 2006, the miner has engaged in a systematic and near total buy-up of the town. It has removed houses, halls and churches.
In satellite images, Acland is now a mere outline.
This is a story about what happened to the once-prosperous town between Dalby and Toowoomba, which because of the mine can be said to “functionally no longer exist”, according to Queensland’s Land Court.
But it is also a story about Aileen Harrison, a former alpaca farmer and pensioner, who has been “retired for 22 years and I’d say a full 18 of them we’ve been fighting this mine”.
And of Glenn Beutel, the only landholder left in Acland, who refused to sell his properties to the New Acland mine.
Despite being the last man standing, Beutel continues to hold the town’s Anzac Day ceremony every year.
He’s careful with his words. He begrudges no worker who earns a living mining, and used to work in the exploration industry himself.
Beutel tells The Saturday Paper that after buying up much of Acland, New Hope demolished many of the town’s houses and farmhouses.
“Three of those were relatively new brick houses that were demolished,” he says.
“As well as the two churches, the Uniting Church and the Church of England, St Jude’s Church of England.”
The miners, Beutel says, survey the now-disappeared town of Acland and, for reasons of narrative simplicity, say locals made the choice to sell up and leave a settlement that was already dying.
“When they came, it was actually a thriving town,” he says. “It had gotten Tidiest Town in Queensland in 1989. People were moving here because it was a pleasant place to live.”
Aileen Harrison had to move out of the dream home she built with her husband when stage 2 of the mine’s expansion came within 1.2 kilometres of her property.
She says her calves started dying, her horses had sinuses clogged with fine dust from the mine, and her alpacas were experiencing problems from birth.
Harrison owned her home on the property but not the land, and thus received nothing.
She now lives closer to the town of Oakey, in a demountable.
“The totality of it is just unbelievable,” Beutel says of Acland’s destruction.
New Acland Coal stripped out much of the town’s flora, including the Queensland bottle trees that once defined its streets. In a sign of the significance of these trees, some were transplanted to the National Arboretum in Canberra.
“They were destroying it before approval is given,” says Beutel. “That’s the prematurity of it. The hastiness.”
Any victory for OCAA and those who have fought the mine – some for decades – would now, in truth, be pyrrhic. Acland is gone.
“Families have split up, friends who went to school together and lived next door to each other into adulthood as mates have stopped speaking,” says Harrison.
She says some residents who sold up and moved to farm tougher land have lost their loved ones to suicide: “I know a couple of people who got out and couldn’t make it.”
The fighting, she says, has also made its way into the nearby schools in Oakey. The children of mine workers argue with the children of those who never wanted it near their homes.
“People come up from Brisbane, reading on the internet that it’s the closest ghost town,” says Beutel.
He’s seen increasing problems with looting and vandalism in recent years. “You see, the perception is: ‘Nobody values this place. It’s all being removed, so I may as well do some removing, too.’”
The company says there is nothing strange in its decision to buy up the town. “As is also normal practice, NAC has also acquired land around the mining leases by voluntary private agreement with landowners as a buffer to the mining operations,” a spokesman told The Saturday Paper.
“There is nothing unusual that has occurred in the current circumstances.”
The campaign against New Acland constitutes one of the longest-running fights against a mine in Australian history.
In this time, New Hope has been repeatedly sanctioned for its actions.
The company remains under investigation for allegedly mining parts of Bottle Tree Hill under its current mining lease, which contains a conservation edict.
Last year, it was fined for illegally drilling 27 bores and preparing a further 41 on land that is not designated for mining, despite being within the company’s current lease. The fine amounted to just $3152.
In 2010, the miner exhumed the grave of six-year-old Dugald McIntyre, who died of sunstroke in 1877 and was buried on his family property. New Hope moved the remains to the nearby town of Jondaryan.
In the end, the company wasn’t granted a mining lease over the land where McIntyre’s grave once stood, rendering his exhumation pointless.
This tendency to act first started early: drilling and blasting work for stage 2 of the mine began at least a year before clearance was made official in late 2006.
And then there is the town itself, practically erased half a decade before the initial stage 3 mining lease extension was rejected. People sold because they thought they should, or that they had to – initially the company’s lease claimed the entire town.
By the late 2000s, the mine edged to within 1.5 kilometres of Acland. The revised stage 3 proposal, if approved, would surround what remains.
Almost all of New Hope’s actions have fallen within the bounds of the law.
It owned the land that it cleared and stripped and mined, typically under its subsidiary, the Acland Pastoral Company (APC).
But the Oakey Coal Action Alliance has been able to use the law to its advantage, too.
In 2017, it became the first community group in Australia to defeat a coalmine in court.
The victory was short-lived.
Over the next three years there were appeals and counter-appeals.
The case finally reached the Supreme Court, which sent it back to the Land Court, but not before it instructed the lower court to exclude considering issues around groundwater and “intergenerational equity”.
“It is not within the Land Court’s jurisdiction, in this proceeding, to address the potential impacts of taking or interfering with groundwater in the area of the proposed mining lease,” Supreme Court Justice Helen Bowskill wrote in her judgement.
With these restrictions, the Land Court this time recommended the mine extension be approved. OCAA appealed, but New Acland Coal cross-appealed in Queensland’s Court of Appeal, succeeding in its bid to not only maintain the approval of the mine but also to have the first member of the Land Court who heard the case, Paul Smith, declared biased against the miner.
“If you had sat there, like our member did, and listened to their rot for so many, many, many days and not ever say anything out of place, you’d have to be a hero,” says Aileen Harrison.
“The Supreme Court ruling left nothing for the Land Court to do. They couldn’t give a decision on anything; she [Justice Bowskill] had tied it up so much that they couldn’t stop the mining for anything.”
On November 29 last year, OCAA applied for special leave to appeal to the High Court of Australia. That hearing will take place on June 5.
New Hope Group chief operating officer Andrew Boyd declared the effort a “stunt”.
In a statement, he said the appeal “has nothing to do with groundwater or any other environmental issue. It is clear that this action is nothing more than an attempt to delay final decisions on stage 3.”
Boyd said 150 jobs had already been lost due to the legal imbroglio, with more cuts scheduled this year. By New Hope’s estimates, the expansion will “generate $7 billion in economic activity over the estimated 15-year life of the project”.
Royalties from the project have a peculiar status, however.
As the Land Court noted in its first decision, the New Hope subsidiary APC owns “the bulk of the land situated within the borders of stages 1, 2 and 3 of the New Acland mine”.
These are old tenures dating back to the 1800s, however, which means they are especially lucrative. Any money earned from mining minerals on these tracts of land is paid straight to the landholder, ultimately New Hope Group, not the state of Queensland.
“That, accordingly, is another significant factor as to why NAC is obviously keen to continue its coal mining operations at New Acland,” the Land Court found.
If the High Court agrees to hear OCAA’s appeal, it will mean one last chance for the mine’s opponents.
If the court declines, though, the Queensland government is likely to approve the mine’s expansion.
The Palaszczuk Labor government has been somewhat coy on the proposal, refusing to deal with it until all the legal avenues for appeal have been exhausted.
After previously opposing the mine, Queensland’s Liberal National Party has since become a staunch supporter.
Glenn Beutel says the long fight to save his town has worn him down.
“I just feel a bit as if I’m floating in the ocean, like a cork. I’ve got no motor,” he says.
Even if OCAA’s appeal is successful, it won’t be able to bring back Acland. “It’s all losing as far as I’m concerned,” Beutel says.
But his connection to this place, to its people and the lives they once built here remains strong.
He tells a story about a time, around 2010, when he came across an old woman living in a campervan by Acland’s war memorial.
She looked worried, and he asked her what was wrong.
She had come back to town for her dog, she said; he was buried in the bottom corner of the park that Beutel’s parents helped turn into an oasis from the brutal Queensland heat.
She was there to exhume his remains, before the town was dug up entirely.
“So, I got my spade out,” Beutel says, “and we went down.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 30, 2020 as "How one mine ate a town".
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