Regarding the Land Court's 2017 recommendation to refuse the Stage 3 expansion of the New Acland coal mine, Queensland's Court of Appeal decided on September 10 that it does not have the power to consider groundwater quantity impacts when hearing mining objections.
Opponents of mine, located on prime agricultural land in the Darling Downs, near Toowoomba, have been waging a legal challenge against the $900 million expansion, since the Campbell Newman government approved it in 2014.
Graziers involved in the Oakey Coal Action Alliance (OCAA) say they will continue battling New Hope’s plans on the basis of the mine’s potential to deplete and contaminate underground water supplies.
“It’s bone dry out here and we’re completely reliant on that water,” local cattleman and former OCAA president Frank Ashman said on September 16. “We have no choice but to fight to protect it.”
Federal resources minister Matt Canavan and New Hope have called on the Queensland government to immediately approve the expansion.
Prior to 2012, the then-Liberal National Party state government had initially rejected the application due to its negative impact on agriculture.
It reversed its decision prior to the January 2015 election, perhaps as a result of large donation by the mine’s owners.
Labor supported investigating the approval process, which involved a co-ordinator general who had been a staffer of the LNP deputy premier.
But after Labor formed government its interest waned.
Meanwhile, local residents challenged the Stage 3 extension approval in the Land Court.
In what was to be a historic case, the Land Court decided to recommend that the minister reject the application.
Mining minister Anthony Lynham (who is part of the current Labor government) deferred a decision pending a judicial review. That hearing took place in February-March.
OCAA spokesperson Paul King stated: “We lost on all counts, but in the process of making that happen NAC [New Acland Coal] turned over the table and knocked off all the pieces.
"They have to start again and are as far away from getting a mining licence as they were in October 2015, maybe even further, because there should be a new objection period.”
The Environmental Defenders Office (Qld), which acted on behalf of OCAA, said on September 10 that the decision highlights the need for an urgent change in the law to ensure farmers and community members can protect the water that underpins their livelihoods.
The case is now expected to be re-heard in its entirety, although the decision means the Land Court will not be able to consider the mine’s impact on groundwater that supplies the region’s prime agricultural land.
EDO Qld CEO and solicitor Jo-Anne Bragg said the decision was “disappointing” for local farmers seeking to “protect their land 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.
“The community may need to return to court without the ability to argue this critical issue in relation to the mining lease.”
She said there needs to be a clarification and that the law needs to take groundwater impacts into account when mining objections are being considered.
“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.”
Climate change is already threatening food security as Queensland, which is in the grip of a drought and unprecedented pre-summer bushfires.
The time is overdue for climate change impacts — including impacts on groundwater — to be addressed as part of the mining application process.