Australia New Acland coal mine investigation drags on for years, leading to landowners' anger
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Farmers on the Darling Downs in Queensland say they are "very frustrated" that an investigation into alleged illegal mining in the area still has not been resolved.
In June last year,to a pre-enforcement letter regarding the allegations.
A year on, farmer Frank Ashman said nearby landholders were fed up.
"From 2018 right through till now, two, three years later, it's just too long," he said.
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The area in question is known as West Pit.
It is within the New Acland Coal [NAC] mining lease, but opponents argue it is outside the mine footprint approved by the Queensland government.
The company responded to the government last August, but the Department of Environment and Science (DES) has not put a timeframe on its investigation.
Ellie Smith from the Lock the Gate Alliance said she was "totally dumbfounded" by the length of the investigation.
"They've [the state government] sat on it for over two years now — it's just outrageous," she said.
"In the meantime, the company continues to mine in areas that were never approved under their EIS [environment impact statement].
"The local community is deeply concerned about the precedent that this sets."
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The federal environment department cleared the coal miner of any wrongdoing late last year and said the company had remained compliant with its federal approvals.
"I don't think that the federal investigation has very much bearing on the state investigation and very different pieces of legislation," Ms Smith said.
Matter returns to court
NAC – a New Hope Group company — was waiting on approval for stage three, which encompassed the West Pit, but that project returned to the Queensland Land Court
Mr Ashman said farmers were not giving up.
"That's the fight that needs to be continued and whether it's in the Land Court or anywhere else … we need to fight to make sure that water and that underground water is protected," he said.
"Every time we make a step forward, the other side makes a counter step, so it's like going into the ring with Cassius Clay [Muhammad Ali]. You don't know which uppercut or right hook he's going to hit you with next.
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The Lock the Gate Alliance said with the matter back before the court, it was important to get a resolution into the legalities of West Pit.
"We'd really like to see an outcome.
"And it's just totally unacceptable that the government is sitting on its hands," Ms Smith said.
"The community needs to know whether or not it can trust the environmental impact assessment process or not and this is a test case for that and the department needs to make a decision."
The DES said it commenced its investigation into West Pit in 2018.
"These matters can be complex and need detailed examination to ensure all relevant issues are considered," a spokesperson said.
"The department is unable to provide a timeline for these processes."
New Hope Group said it would not be commenting, as the matter was potentially before the Land Court.
In June last year, chief operating officer Andrew Boyd strongly rejected any allegations of wrongdoing on the part of the time and said all operations were legal and within its mining lease.
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"Nothing in our mining lease requires us to absolutely stay in those mining pit areas that were defined under the EIS," he said.
At the time, Mr Boyd said 10 million tonnes of coal had been extracted since mining in the West Pit began in 2016 and that the mine had kept the state government informed about its revised plans.
"Over time, mine plans change and pit boundaries change, based on economics, based on exploration drilling, and all kinds of things," he said.
"It's normal mining practice."
Jobs already lost
The Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union's (CFMEU) Michael Hartin believed the investigation was a "moot point", with the workforce winding up later this year.
"We've lost over 300 full-time employees. We've also lost around 150 contractors, we have more redundancies occurring in six weeks' time," he said.
"Certainly by late October, early November, we'll actually see the rest of the workforce made redundant as the mine progresses into full rehabilitation mode.
"There is a bit of a fallacy around the amount of jobs in the renewable industry; there's only been one employee who has obtained work in that field."
Mr Hartin said employees were also "disappointed and disillusioned" that the case had returned to the Land Court, but said there was a future for the employees at Acland.
"It certainly feels like we are on the legal roundabout," he said.
"From what we're hearing from the company … they certainly remain committed.
"Coal exports for thermal coal has actually increased by 16 per cent this year, there is still a big market out there for thermal coal."
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