One day in early May 2016, veteran Queensland cattleman Sid Plant was ascending on a routine flight of long-forgotten purpose in the direction of Toowoomba when he observed from his home-built ultralight a peculiar new landscape emerging on the Darling Downs pastures below.
The country south of his 1200-hectare farm had been gouged since the early 2000s in the pursuit of thermal coal, but here were fresh contusions of busted trees and scraped earth. By his reckoning, “possibly another hundred acres of it”.
“I thought, ‘holy mackerel, that’s all been cleared in the last few weeks’,” Plant recalls. “I could see then they were saddling up to mine it.”
He was right.
Plant had discovered the beginnings of a new coal pit – West Pit, as it would become known – the latest endeavour of New Acland Coal (NAC), a subsidiary of New Hope Group, 25 kilometres north of Oakey at one of Australia’s most contentious mines.
But as far as Plant and other nearby residents knew, this dig had not been approved. The operation was all the more surprising because the larger NAC stage three expansion – a rail spur and several new pits – was the subject of a Queensland Land Court hearing then only two months old.
West Pit nevertheless continued without hindrance from state or federal regulators for almost six years.
Only after NAC exhausted it of coal late in 2021 did something shift at the state Department of Environment and Science. According to documents dated June 15 this year, the mining of West Pit and a portion of the existing South Pit was now considered an “alleged unauthorised disturbance”.
It had kept locals employed and injected money into the local economy. But to the New Acland mine objectors, the inaction of government smelled rotten.
“Most people around here were a bit disgusted, really,” Plant said. “I suppose it suited somebody.”
NAC staunchly denies accusations its mining was illegal. It is not in dispute that West Pit and the South Pit parcel are within the mining leases granted in 2006 as part of New Acland’s stage two. The contention arises from what permission existed for NAC to begin the new pit – originally proposed as part of the yet-to-be approved stage three – under the old agreements.
Rather than test the matter in court, the department agreed to an “enforceable undertaking”. NAC would plant trees for koalas once the pits were rehabilitated and establish a wildlife corridor to a nearby known habitat.
The miner’s newsletter celebrated the 100-hectare planting as an “investment” into “an enhanced rehabilitation project”. The cost would be $2 million.
NAC also agreed it would not destroy an already damaged landmark known as Bottle Tree Hill – even though there had never been any proposal to do so.
“I just look at it and think, ‘what a load of bullshit’,” says environmental lawyer Chris McGrath, who has been involved in previous litigation against the miner.
“This is an absolute gift for the company.
“They end up with no criminal record. They don’t have to admit any guilt. They’re just saying, ‘well, we don’t think they did anything wrong’ and the department lets them get away with it.”
NAC will not say how much coal it had extracted from West Pit since 2016. But in June 2020, New Hope chief operating officer Andrew Boyd said it was then about 10 million tonnes. Calculated on the lowest thermal coal prices of the period, this amounts to about $A700 million. New Hope does not dispute the figure.
The mining of West Pit, McGrath claims, is “the most profitable environmental crime in Queensland history”.
Late on August 26, a Friday afternoon, Queensland Resources Minister Scott Stewart approved the mining leases for stage three, a pivotal moment for the miner after a tortuous years-long journey through the courts.
The farmers and landholder groups – described by New Hope as “a handful of activists” engaged in “green lawfare” – have already flagged another legal challenge. They have been fighting stage three since applications were lodged in 2007.
About the same time, NAC began buying up and bulldozing Acland. From 57 homes in 2000, only three are standing. Two of them are owned by Glenn Beutel, a 69-year-old retiree, who refused to sell.
The company spared the school building (attended by broadcaster and fierce NAC opponent Alan Jones). The old coal colliery – the town’s main employer through the 20th century – remained protected by heritage status.
Beutel has taken it upon himself to tend the thin strip of green preserved as the war memorial, established with the help of his late mother. But little else remains.
It was already too late for Acland when, in 2012, then-premier Campbell Newman knocked back the original stage three proposal on the grounds it would adversely hit the area’s rich agricultural lands and communities.
Following the Newman decision, NAC submitted a scaled-back stage three, which no longer included Acland. It was welcomed by the LNP government. But the Oakey Coal Action Alliance – the banner under which the landholder groups had loosely coalesced – pushed back again.
It was this “revised” plan, now approved by Stewart, the objectors were trying to stop in the Land Court when Sid Plant found the first marks of West Pit in 2016.
After the longest hearing in the court’s 124-year history, Paul Smith, the member hearing the case, recommended the revised stage three not proceed. He reasoned it was “beyond doubt” the expansion would “cause disruptions to aquifers in the Acland region”, even if the modelling at that time was “imprecise”.
Smith heard testimony about the new operation and he briefly visited it in his findings, noting NAC had “already in a sense” begun the expansion he had just rejected.
“[It] had been earmarked to be mined as part of a larger stage three pit, but due to delays in obtaining approvals for the revised stage three, NAC took the decision to mine West Pit now for continuity of operations and employment,” he said.
“NAC did not inform any objectors with respect to its intention to begin mining West Pit.”
Smith’s opinion did not trigger immediate investigations from the Queensland or federal governments. (These came in 2018 and 2020, respectively, and both probes gave NAC the imprimatur to continue).
Rather, court transcripts from the 2016 Land Court hearing showed the Queensland department supported the miner’s West Pit endeavours on the basis there was nothing expressly preventing it in the years-old stage two agreements.
McGrath, the environmental lawyer, counters there is nothing in the documents to expressly allow it. West Pit does not appear in the stage two Environmental Impact Statement or the approved Environmental Authority.
He likens the miner’s actions to obtaining council approval to build a one-story building, then unilaterally building it to 10.
In a statement to the Brisbane Times, a New Hope Group spokesman said: “Since 2016, New Acland Coal identified West Pit mining activity in Plans of Operation submitted to the Queensland Department of Environment and Science, prior to mining activity occurring in West Pit.”
Insisting it had done nothing inappropriate, it did not answer why it had agreed to improve internal system and training as part of the enforceable undertaking. It refused to provide evidence of where and how it documented West Pit.
McGrath says the argument is bogus: a plan of operations does not override the initial approvals.
The Department of Environment could have cleared up any ambiguity long ago, he says, “but they f—ed around for years and let them continue to mine it”.
All the while, Beutel, the closest resident to the pit, endured dust and noise, often at night.
“It was awful, that’s the only word,” he says. “When the weather conditions permitted, you got sounds of rocks and large items falling into the back of trucks. Sometimes you get a constant roaring noise of machinery. You can get Caterpillar tracks, ‘clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk’. It’s a whole cacophony.”
The department says it elected not to prosecute NAC because the $2 million tree planting, as opposed to rehabilitating the land for grazing only, represented a good “environmental and enforcement outcome”.
It adds the alleged contravention was not indictable, meaning the offence does not carry a maximum jail time of two or more years. It bases this conclusion on the penalties defined in section 426 of the Queensland Environmental Protection Act, which prohibit a person acting outside an Environmental Authority.
But section 17 of the same act lists the threshold for “serious environmental harm” as damage requiring more than $50,000 to rehabilitate. The maximum jail time for that offence is five years; in other words, indictable.
“Either they don’t understand their own act, or they’re being selective to avoid penalising the mining company,” McGrath says. “The department is not enforcing the law properly – they’re actually acting in the interests of the mining company.”
The department did not answer questions about what had changed in its internal decision-making between 2016 and its 2022 language of “alleged unauthorised disturbance”.
The objectors’ Land Court victory, handed down in early 2017, was short-lived. NAC launched a successful Supreme Court judicial review, and the question of stage three was returned to the Land Court; only this time, it was not allowed to consider the key issue of groundwater.
The subsequent chain of appeals and cross-appeals went all the way to the High Court, then back again, until the Land Court recommended in December last year the stage three expansion proceed.
The knotty history of the New Acland coal mine was wheeled by trolley into the office of Scott Stewart late last month. Only his signature could grant the new leases.
“I will make my decision once I have considered the large amount of information associated with this complex matter,” Stewart, under pressure to approve the mine from the LNP Opposition and coal lobbyists, said at an estimates hearing on August 2. “And I can tell you there are thousands of pages.”
His statement announcing the approval of the leases was two sentences long and did not explain his reasoning. With the leases approved, NAC must now obtain an associated water licence from the Department of Regional Development, Manufacturing and Water.
“Minister Stewart’s decision to grant New Acland stage three its mining leases is proof the Queensland government believes the project makes sense environmentally, socially and financially,” NAC general manager Dave O’Dwyer says.
The New Hope Group spokesman says there will be close to 600 workers on site at the peak of stage three construction, while the permanent workforce will be about 400 full-time roles, “made up of Darling Downs locals”.
The operation is particularly valuable to the company because almost all the land to be mined under stage three is on tenures granted in the 19th century. This means it pays almost all its royalties to the landholder rather than the state. The landholder is Acland Pastoral Company, another subsidiary of New Hope.