Sunday, 4 June 2017

New Hope Group's open cut coal mine expansion sunk by Qld Land Court: a victory for the people of Acland, Oakey and the Darling Downs

The Guardian, 31 May 2017:

A court has recommended the Queensland government reject a controversial coalmine in what farmers and lawyers hailed as a historic victory in one of Australia’s largest environmental public interest cases.

The saga of the $900m New Acland mine proposal, which included a public slanging match between the broadcaster Alan Jones and Campbell Newman that led to a defamation suit by the former premier, drew to an extraordinary conclusion with a ruling by a land court member, Paul Smith, on Wednesday.

In what is believed to be the court’s first outright ruling against a major mine in its modern history, Smith recommended that the government refuse environmental and mining licences to its proponent, New Hope Coal.

It was a David and Goliath victory for landholders who put forward evidence of the miner’s faulty modelling of jobs and groundwater impacts, serious noise and dust impacts, and a history of local complaints.

Newman’s Liberal National party government was mired in controversy over its belated approval of the mine expansion, on Queensland’s Darling Downs, after New Hope’s parent company donations of about $900,000 to the federal Liberal party.

The LNP government had backflipped after vetoing the Acland proposal in 2012, with Newman saying it was “inappropriate” to expand the mine in the state’s southern food bowl.

Paul King, of Oakey Coal Action Alliance, a group of more than 60 farmers and objectors to the mine, said: “We suggested during the court proceedings that that donation was an attempt to influence the decision-making process.”

Guardian Australia also revealed that a Newman government minister involved in the government’s handling of the project had taken a $2,000 donation from a New Hope director and his daughter took a job at the company.

King said: “This decision, which clearly demonstrates no good reason for the mine to go ahead, is a vindication of a clean system.

“This shows that our system is robust.”

Jo-Anne Bragg, the chief executive of the environmental defenders office, which acted for the objectors, said it was “unprecedented in decades” for a Queensland court to recommend a flat rejection of a major mine.

“I think it is a watershed because it is so rare a group of landholders and locals can win against a big, well-resourced mining company,” she said.

The ruling comes four months after the federal environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, approved the mine with “28 strict conditions”.

Bragg said the EDO expected the state resources minister, Anthony Lynham, and the environment department to follow the court’s recommendation after a “very thorough” 96-day trial and 459-page decision.

The case saw New Hope cut its original job projections from an average of 2,953 a year to 680 net jobs nationally, when other industries displaced by the mine were taken into account.
The court also heard the company would claw back an estimated $500m in royalties from a legal loophole that would see taxpayers receive a cut of just 7%.

Landholders mustered evidence that unreliable groundwater modelling by the miner put farmers’ groundwater at risk. They also argued that more than 100 local complaints to New Hope and 30 to state environmental officials about coal dust and noise levels had effectively fallen on deaf ears for a decade.

This was the basis of evidence of a high risk of the new mine exceeding air-quality limits.

It was a long hard fight spread over 96 days commencing in March 2016 before this judgment was delivered on 31 May 2017, New Acland Coal Pty Ltd v Ashman & Ors and Chief Executive, Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (No. 4) [2017] QLC 24:


1. I recommend to the Honourable the Minister responsible for the MRA that MLA 50232 be rejected.

2. In light of Order 1, I recommend to the Honourable the Minister responsible for the MRA that MLA 700002 be rejected.

3. I recommend to the administering authority responsible for the EPA that Draft EA Number EPML 00335713 be refused.

4. I direct the Registrar of the Land Court provide a copy of these reasons and access to the Land Court e- trial site to the Honourable the Minister administering the Mineral Resources Act 1989 and to the administering authority under the Environmental Protection Act 1994.

5. I will hear from the parties as to costs.

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