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Environmental groups plan fresh legal action against mine as New Acland ramps up recruitment drive

After 15 years of legal battles, the recruitment drive for Queensland's newest approved thermal coal mine is finally underway — but now environmentalists plan to launch fresh legal action. 

This week, environmental group Lock the Gate and Oakey Coal Action Alliance made an application for an internal review of the associated water licence granted to the controversial New Acland Coal mine – which could allow for a new challenge in the Land Court.

The proposed expansion of the mine, near Toowoomba in southern Queensland, was approved in August 2022 by the Palaszczuk government, and an associated water licence was granted under the Water Act last October.

The Department of Regional Development, Manufacturing and Water said the licence was subject to 35 strict conditions including requirements to monitor and manage the impact on aquifers and groundwater, publish the volume of water they take, and to offset the impacts by surrendering other water entitlements.

What is an associated water licence ?

Associated water is the water that resources companies need to remove from the ground to access resources like coal or gas.

To help regulate and manage groundwater, the Queensland government requires resource companies to apply for associated water licences.

Extracting groundwater to mine coal is often contentious because it has the potential to affect groundwater levels in the area beyond the mine, such as nearby bores.

Whether or not the groundwater that the New Acland Coal mine plans to extract will affect the bores of neighbouring landholders remains contentious.

While groups opposing the mine expansion claim surrounding groundwater will be at risk, previous reports from the Department of Resources have found that the aquifers used by farmers are not directly connected to the those that will be drained by the New Acland coal mine.

'An appalling decision'

Oakey Coal Action Alliance spokesman Paul King said the group does not think the water licence should have been being awarded in the first place.

"We're seeking it [the internal review] because we think it's an appalling decision," he said.

"The only way for the decision to be examined is to apply for an internal review and see if that can be changed so farmers come out on top."

Mr King said their application for an internal review included evidence from Australian scientists that showed the expansion would have a detrimental impact on the groundwater in surrounding dairy farming land .

"They will take out up to 1 billion litres of groundwater every year, that will no longer be available to the farmers,' he said.

"If you take that much water out of the system, something's got to give and, in this case, it will be the milk production.

"In this case, it'll be the farmers."

Mine 'confident' in the process

The general manager of the New Acland coal mine, Dave O'Dwyer, said he was confident that the potential impact of the mine expansion had been adequately considered under the current associated water licence.

"The government has gone through it, the various bureaucrats have gone through, and the departments have gone through and done all the checks and balances and issues with our approval," he said.

"So, we'll move ahead and keep going with that and any action that occur or any other objectives they have now is between them and the government."

Mr O'Dwyer disagreed that the expansion will greatly impact farmers.

"That's really all covered on the associated boarding licence application that we put in and the studies that were done," he said.

"The modelling that was done ... was reviewed by various bodies; I think there's six or seven different groups have reviewed it.

"It's gone through various departments, and CSIRO has been across it.

"So that process was really about making sure that the work that we do doesn't affect the work that they [farmers] do.

"And we're very confident in that process."

New Hope Group, the owner of New Acland Coal Mine, has have also made an application for internal review into the associated water licence.

"It's just about some clarity that we're seeking on some of the constraints that we have in there to make sure that we can achieve everything under all our all our various approval."

What will a review mean?

Sean Ryan, a lawyer from the Environmental Defence Office, represented Lock the Gate and Oakey Coal Action Alliance.

Mr Ryan says if the application for internal review is rejected, lobby groups could challenge the granting of the associated water licence in the Land Court.

"It's the step that precedes an application to a court, so it is a request, basically, for the decision to be reconsidered by a different decision maker," he said.

"But it's still within the department administering the Water Act.

"Either the decision maker will agree with the original decision, in which case our client may take the opportunity to appeal that to the land court and seek a different outcome or the reviewer might review the application on review," he said.

How would it work?

Mr Ryan said blocking the water licence could impact the mine's expansion.

"It's a licence to take or interfere with water," he said.

"Our understanding is because the coal seam's in an aquifer that would prevent the miner from accessing the coal."

He said preparatory work that did not require water such as site clearance and building roads would not be impacted.

"But there wouldn't be much point to any of that if they couldn't take the coal."

How much will it impact farmers? 

Dairy farmer David Vonhoff said he was very concerned about the impact of the New Acland Coal mine expansion could have on his groundwater.

"Out here we depend on underground water a lot and with that stage three mine, it's going to be deeper and there's very much a possibility they will drain that water which we really need,' he said .

Malcolm Krautz is a cattle farmer next door to the mine and has a differing view.

He is confident about his water supply and the process New Hope Group went through.

"They're [New Acland Coal Mine] not mucking around with water, it's too serious," he said.

"I don't really believe groundwater is a problem nor do I believe it will be a problem in the future, I think the concerns people are raising are not based on fact but emotion."

A spokesperson for the Department of Regional Development Manufacturing and Water says the applications is being reviewed in accordance with the Water Act .

"The reviewer will have 20 business days to arrive at a decision, with a further 30 business days if needed."

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