Acland mine faces more legal challenges

Anti-coal protest outside the Queensland parliament in 2017.

The Oakey Coal Action Alliance (OCAA) is continuing its fight to protect farmland and water resources in the Darling Downs in Queensland from the $900 million Stage 3 expansion of New Hope Coal’s New Acland Coalmine (NAC).

It has filed an objection to the Queensland Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the historic Land Court recommendation that Stage 3 be rejected. The Supreme Court has ruled the matter will be referred to a different Member of the Land Court for further consideration.

The Supreme Court also ruled that this would not include issues of noise, groundwater and intergenerational equity, as these are not within the Land Court’s jurisdiction. These constraints on the Land Court to reconsider this matter will significantly reduce the scope of the rehearing.

OCAA argues the ruling that groundwater impacts cannot be considered in mining objection hearings opens a Pandora’s box for future objections, not just the New Acland project.

Environmental Defenders Office QLD CEO Jo Bragg told Green Left Weekly: “EDO is acting again on behalf of Oakey Coal Action Alliance in their case in the Court of Appeal arguing that groundwater is relevant and that New Hope’s Acland mine has to get an associated water licence. We hope the Court of Appeal will agree that water is a basis for rejecting the mining application and disagree with the Supreme Court.”

Land owners have claimed that NAC has been acting illegally in recent months, effectively jumping the gun by undertaking site works, such as fencing off areas and blasting.

On May 31, Queensland environment minister Leeanne Enoch confirmed reports in The Australian that NAC’s actions were under investigation by the Queensland government. The investigation centres on allegations that the company had begun mining beyond areas approved by the Environment Department.

The company allegedly expanded “mining activities into … proposed pits which are within the mining lease area granted for the mine but outside of the mine pit footprint for which NAC sought and obtained approval”, according to a legal brief prepared by the Environmental Defenders Office for the OCAA. “NAC has continued to mine outside the areas approved … causing environmental harm and/or nuisance to nearby residents. This raises serious concerns as to the financial assurance held for the site.”

Kaiya Ferguson, the national student representative of Doctors for the Environment Australia and a final year medical student at the University of Queensland, is concerned with the health impacts of the expansion of NAC’s operations. “Young people and medical students in Queensland are not being heard or considered in these decision-making processes”, she said.

“It is us who are going to have to manage the environmental, community and health mess left by the fossil fuel industry and New Acland Coal. Their actions harm the world we will live in and are a threat to our future while the Queensland government stands aside and watches temperatures rise.

“If New Acland Coal were to succeed with their expansion plans, what would it mean for human health? It would indicate that coal industry profits and government budgets come before the health of our communities and future generations.”

Two members of Frontline Action on Coal locked on to the rail line at Jondaryan on June 28, stopping all coal exports from the Acland mine. They called on Queensland Minister for Natural Resources and Mines Anthony Lynham to respect the Land Court's historic decision against expansion of the mine and reject New Hope's attempts to overturn this decision.

The Land Court specifically took issue with the impacts of coal dust and the negligence of NAC to adequately monitor and respond to complaints.

The judge noted: “Evidence from nearby residents … indicate that dust has been an ongoing issue for them since NAC began its open cut coal mining operations some 15 years ago.” He found NAC and the Queensland environment department had treated landholders “very poorly”.

A 2012 report by public health physicians from Doctors for the Environment Australia concluded that essential measurements of potentially dangerous air particles, such as PM 2.5, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, had not even occurred, despite communities complaining of respiratory symptoms.

It must be asked, where has the government been during these years of pollution? When monitoring was knowingly inadequate, what have our representatives done to protect the communities who elected them?