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ABC News
ABC News
By Elly Bradfield, and Nathan Morris

New Acland Coal Mine agreement with Qld government a result of bullying, lawyer says

A photo of the West Pit at the New Acland Coal Mine taken in 2020. (ABC Southern Queensland: Nathan Morris)

An environmental lawyer has accused the Queensland government of allowing itself to be "bullied" by failing to prosecute a coal company over alleged illegal mining in the state's south.

New Hope Group and the Department of Environment and Science (DES) this week reached an agreement for the company to rehabilitate more than 100 hectares of land following investigations into "alleged unauthorised disturbances" in an area known as West Pit, at its New Acland Coal Mine near Oakey.

DES said the company had applied for the rehabilitation agreement as an alternative to enforcement action.

Queensland barrister Chris McGrath has been involved in several cases involving the New Acland mine and said, as part of the company's mine approvals, it was already required to rehabilitate the mine site. 

"I think this is an incredible outcome for New Hope and they have succeeded in … bullying the Queensland government into effectively taking no action for a major breach of our state's environmental laws," he said.

"It's nothing. It's like saying, 'I'm going to obey the speed limit', and saying that that's a good thing."

In the lower left corner is the West Pit, which is outside the original approval for the mine. (Supplied: Google Earth)

A 'disappointing' outcome

Oakey farmer Tanya Plant first raised concerns about the mining of West Pit during 2016 and said she was disappointed by the outcome. 

"It certainly doesn't do much to restore people's faith in the government being able to enforce conditions," she said. 

"It was good that they have finally done something, but it's disappointing that they haven't done more about it."

She said people had become cynical after the company received small fines for noise breaches.

Queensland Environment Minister Meaghan Scanlon has been contacted for comment.

Acland farmer Tanya Plant is among landholders opposing stage three of the New Acland Coal Mine. (ABC News)

A DES spokesperson said on Thursday the deal had put an end to extensive enquiries into the matter and would result in about 140 hectares of land for conservation and koala habitat once mining ended at New Acland.

The mine's general manager Dave O'Dwyer said its West Pit mining operation had been included in its plans.

"However, the DES disputed this as an accepted form of authorisation," he said.

Mine closure hits town

More than 280 workers have been made redundant from the mine since 2019, with only 20 staff remaining on-site for care and maintenance.

Mining at the New Acland site stopped on November 26, 2021, after it exhausted its supply of coal.

New Hope Group has applied for fresh approvals from the Queensland government for its stage three expansion of the mine.

Anthony James is a butcher in the nearby town of Oakey and said he has had to let go of staff since the mine closed late last year.

"We're losing more customers than we're gaining … because there's no add-on businesses coming in because the mine's finished," he said.

The proposed expansion of the New Acland Coal Mine is dividing local communities. (ABC Southern Queensland: Nathan Morris)

Mr James said he used to supply more than $1,000 worth of meat to a service station near a coal train loading facility.

"It's down to $400 because it doesn't have the same amount of traffic," he said. 

He said the decision to offer the operators of the New Acland Coal Mine an "alternative to enforcement" by state regulators was just another example of a drawn-out saga that had been a drag on the town's economy.

"How many holes do you have to jump through to actually get something put through," Mr James said.

The area in red stripes was the proposed mining footprint for stage two of the project. (Supplied: New Hope Group)

Operators looking ahead

Mr McGrath estimated that the company had made $900 million from mining at least 9 million tonnes of coal from West Pit, but New Hope Group declined to comment on this. 

He said if the company had been found guilty of a serious environmental crime, that could have led to their stage three approval being refused.

"So, it is a big deal."

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