Did this Queensland miner extract $500m of coal without permission?

A controversial Queensland coal mine is being investigated for potential non-compliance with its licence, which opponents allege has unlawfully mined $500 million of coal in an area for which they never applied.

Jun 18, 2020, updated Jun 18, 2020
Existing operations at the New Acland coal mine. (Photo: ABC)

Existing operations at the New Acland coal mine. (Photo: ABC)

Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley confirmed her department was investigating operations at the New Acland Coal (NAC) mine, 180km west of Brisbane.

“The department became aware of a potential non-compliance relating to the New Acland Coal project approval on December 31, 2019,” Ley said.

“Compliance officers are conducting a thorough review of all available information relating to this approval.”

The area in question is known as West Pit — it is within the NAC mining lease but, opponents claim, outside the mine footprint it first applied for as part of its stage two project approval from the State Government.

NAC is waiting on approval for stage three, which encompasses the West Pit, but that project is being challenged by a group of landholders in the High Court.

The Queensland Department of Environment and Science (DES) said it was also investigating after receiving reports about the issue in 2018.

“DES has engaged with the community and the operator of the site regarding these reports and the matter continues to be under investigation,” a spokesperson said.

Barrister Chris McGrath, who has been acting for landholders who are part of the Oakey Coal Action Alliance (OCAA), said a “stuff up” by state regulators with the stage-two approval had enabled the mine to take advantage of a lack of detail.

“There’s no condition in the approval that specifically says there will be no mining outside the defined three pits,” McGrath said.

“It’s an audacious claim.”

‘Over time, mine plans change’

The mine’s owner, New Hope Group, strongly denied the allegations and said all operations were legal and within its mining lease.

“Nothing in our mining lease requires us to absolutely stay in those mining pit areas that were defined under the EIS (environment impact statement),” chief operating officer Andrew Boyd said.

Boyd said 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.”

Since mining in the West Pit began in 2016, Boyd said 10 million tonnes of coal had been extracted.

‘Tricky legal arguments’

But McGrath disagreed with NAC’s interpretation of the law.

“They’ve thrown up a lot of tricky legal arguments about why they’re stage-two approval gives them the authority to mine West Pit,” he said.

“But really it comes down to a tricky legal question: How can you get approval for something you never applied for?”

Local farmer and pilot discovers a ‘new pit’

Sid Plant has been fighting the mine for 20 years. His cattle farm borders the NAC mining lease and he regularly flies his light plane over the area.

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“One day [in 2016] I just happen to be going past and I saw a big patch of country bulldozed and I thought, ‘That’s strange’,” he said.

“The company sort of keeps us informed a bit and there has been no mention of it and I realised then that was a new pit.”

Plant and other farmers have claimed the mine would impact agricultural land and groundwater, but he said his primary concern was the mine’s contribution to climate change.

“The sad thing is that farmers are suffering the effects of climate change as much or more than anybody else in the community,” he said.

“I believe the time for coal has come and gone.”

Plant said he wanted governments to work with miners and their workers to help them transition into sustainable industries and jobs.

New Hope Group first applied for approval for its stage-three expansion in 2007; since then, it has been stalled by legislative demands and protracted legal challenges from OCAA in the Land Court.

The issue has divided the small farming community around Oakey.

“The stress is just bloody terrible,” Plant said.

“I don’t think any of us realised just how stressful it was going to be to have that neighbour.”

This week, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) wrote to state and federal environment ministers, urging them to take action if the law had been broken.

“New Hope’s coal mine has been dividing communities and wrecking prime farmland on Queensland’s Darling Downs for 20 years,” ACF campaigner Christian Slattery said.

“Australian coal damages the climate, whether it is burned in power stations here, or exported to be burned overseas.”

– ABC / Elly Bradfield and Nathan Morris

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