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ABC News
ABC News
By Georgie Hewson

Locals in regional Queensland town Oakey are divided over plans to reopen New Acland thermal coal mine

A small town in regional Queensland is divided over the state government's approval of plans to expand the New Acland thermal coal mine.

Resources Minister Scott Stewart approved the project on Friday afternoon, ending more than a decade of uncertainty for Oakey, a town of 4,000 people near Toowoomba.

The project still requires a government water licence, but otherwise it appears certain to go ahead with the promise of creating about 400 jobs.

Some members of the Oakey community have been buoyed by the economic potential of the mine's reopening, while others hold grave concerns about its effect on the environment.

Local butcher Tony James said he lost a significant amount of business after the mine went into caretaker mode after running out of coal reserves last year.

He said many locals and businesses had moved away and the project's approval was "very good to see".

"I just hope the water lease gets approved and they can start mining and help the town a bit more," he said.

Mr James said most residents in Oakey wanted the coal mine to reopen.

"Hopefully it'll be a bit more buzzing in the town because at the moment it's a pretty solemn feel," he said.

Local Alex Peters agreed.

"The coal mine has been a big supporter of this community for many years now so I think it's actually quite positive," she said.

"My mother-in-law actually worked at the mine, she actually lost her job and a lot of businesses closed so hopefully with more jobs in the community we can get back on track."

Opposition to more coal

New Hope had sought approval to expand the mine's production to up to 7.5 million tonnes per annum for another 12 years.

The company only expects to mine 5.1 million tonnes per annum, though says the volume may change with demand.

Federal Member for Groom Garth Hamilton said its approval would create more jobs, growth and investment.

"I think it's fantastic to bring an end to the uncertainty that's plagued this project," he said.

But not everyone is supportive of the expansion, as the mine is situated close to farmland.

Members of the Oakey Coal Action Alliance have fought the expansion on environmental grounds in the Queensland Land Court for 14 years.

Retired cattle breeder Frank Ashman was disappointed the plans were approved.

"I don't think people really understand, nor do they appreciate, the value of the agriculture in that particular region, so yeah, really disappointed that they would trade off farm production as opposed to resource," he said.

He said his concerns went beyond the destruction of prime agricultural land and strategic cropping land.

"What goes with open-cut coal mining is the loss of water and the water is taken from aquifers that the farmers in the district [use]. You can't do anything, you can't produce beef so that's how serious it is," he said.

Federal Greens Member for Griffith Max Chandler-Mather said the expansion of a coal mine contradicted global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"The idea that we should be opening up and expanding thermal coal mining in Queensland when we're on the brink of a climate catastrophe is complete madness," he said.

"We should be investing in battery storage, renewable energy, solar and wind much more than we should be using 1.4 million litres of our groundwater every day to expand coal mining that will cook the planet and drive up our power bills."

Timing of announcement criticised

The timing of the announcement has also attracted criticism from the state opposition.

"Somehow on a Friday afternoon, deep after 3pm, the government decides to approve it without mentioning what's changed," Opposition Leader David Crisafulli said.

But Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman defended the move.

"It's been our government's position the whole way through this very lengthy process that we would wait until the outcome of court proceedings before the Land Court," Ms Fentiman said.

"The Minister has now made that decision. I understand other associated permits are still outstanding, including an associated water license so there's still a number of steps to go through this process."

The Attorney-General was unable to say how long the associated water licence would take.

"I don't know what's involved but I'm very confident in the minister and the department to make the appropriate decision," she said.

The Coal Action Alliance said it wouldn't stop fighting the planned development.

"We rally together and David goes out to fight Goliath," Mr Ashman said.

"We'll fight dirty, and we've said many occasions — you put somebody into a corner, and they come out fighting and fight like a mongrel dog.

"So, it's not over Red Rover, no way."

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