Members of the Oakey Coal Action Alliance (OCAA) gathered in Acland on February 14 for the Queensland environment department’s decision on the environmental authority for New Hope Coal’s proposed Acland Stage 3 project.
Expecting the worst — that the department would reject the recommendation of the Land Court — local farmers and community members were overjoyed at the decision by Queensland’s Environment and Science Department to reject New Acland’s environmental authority amendment for the Stage 3 coalmine expansion.
"The decision to refuse the application is in line with the recommendation of the Land Court which was handed down in May 2017," the department said in a statement. "This followed 99 days of expert and law witness testimony regarding the potential impacts of the project."
Environmental Defenders Queensland CEO Jo-Anne Bragg said: “This is not just a win for the Acland farmers, but a win for all farming communities, a win for trust in government and a win for proper legal process in our state.”
Queensland’s Land Court recommended last May that Stage 3 be refused following public hearings, including from OCAA — a group of 60 local landholders and townspeople who had been fighting to stop New Hope's mine from encroaching on agricultural land, arguing it posed too great a risk to water, air quality and farming.
It was one of the largest environmental public interest cases in Australian history — and the first time in its 120-year-history that the Land Court had recommended the outright refusal of a mining project following a contested public hearing.
The Land Court — an independent legal umpire — thoroughly considered all of the costs and benefits of the proposed coal expansion. It gave a clear and unequivocal recommendation that mines minister Anthony Lynham should reject the Stage 3 expansion and environmental authority application, primarily due to the potentially adverse affect on the groundwater and Darling Downs agricultural land for hundreds of years to come.
Bragg said: “Today’s decision by the environment department was a test for both our newly elected government and for the department — whether it would follow independent and transparent court analysis of evidence, or be persuaded by Acland’s new groundwater work, which the government allowed to be provided in a last-minute submission process behind closed doors.”
However, the decision may not be the end of the road for the coalmine or the community that is fighting it.
Bragg said: “The strain of uncertainty on our clients and other community objectors continues. New Acland Coal has applied for judicial review of the Land Court’s decision, which could in turn invalidate the department’s decision. The review hearing is scheduled for March 19 this year, continuing a decade of uncertainty for the Acland community. The mines minister must also still make his decision about whether or not to grant the required mining leases.
“As community lawyers for the environment, we want communities like Acland, and farmers like Noel Wieck and his family, who run a 100-year-old award-winning dairy, to have trust in the legal process and environmental department. We also believe they deserve a fair go.
“We strongly believe the Land Court’s powers should be strengthened to have the final say on decisions of environmental authorities for proposed mining projects — not the current recommendations the government must only consider when making the final decision.
“If the Land Court had this power, the law would have already greatly reduced the uncertainty for this 150-year-old farming community.”