Promise of prosperity spells death knell for mining town

By Kathy Marks

Photo / File
Photo / File

When New Hope Coal arrived in Acland in 2002, company executives promised a new era of prosperity for the small Queensland town. "They said there would be jobs, jobs, jobs, and Acland would boom," recalls Glen Beutel, one resident.

Ten years on, New Hope is producing four million tonnes of coal a year, but Acland is almost deserted. As the mine has crept ever closer, locals have sold up and moved out. Only Beutel has resisted the company's offers, and - apart from a family which rents a house from him - he is the sole remaining inhabitant of the once thriving town on the Darling Downs, west of Brisbane.

The election of Campbell Newman's Liberal National Party last month has given Beutel a stay of execution, with Newman vetoing plans by the company to mine beneath the town itself. But although Newman blocked another major coal project on the fertile Darling Downs, and pledged to protect "strategic cropping areas", few expect the mining frenzy gripping Queensland - and neighbouring New South Wales - to subside.

Already one of the world's biggest coal exporters, Australia is expected to double, or even triple, exports by 2020, with most production taking place in coal-rich NSW and Queensland. The two states are also the focus of a rapidly growing coal seam gas industry, which - along with coal itself - is increasingly bringing mining companies into conflict with farmers and communities.

Coal seam gas miners have been accused of polluting groundwater supplies and threatening the productivity of agricultural land.

Opponents such as the Greens and the Lock the Gate Alliance, a protest group which has blockaded projects, say that mining should not be permitted in areas that contain prime farmland, are of high conservation value, or are densely populated.

The irony of Acland's fate is that the town, situated near Toowoomba and once home to about 250 people, grew up around an underground colliery where nearly everyone, including Beutel's father, worked.

In his childhood, Acland was a "dusty, barren place", but later Beutel's parents, Thelma and Wilf, planted hundreds of trees and helped create a park in the former railway reserve. (The mine, which the railway served, closed in 1983).

His parents' contribution to the greening programme, which won Acland Tidy Town awards in the 1980s, is the main reason that Beutel is reluctant to leave. "They spent much of their later years trying to make the town a better place to live," he says. "There are a lot of things of value that you can't put a dollar sign on."

Beutel laments the "premature destruction of things you can't get back". Apparently expecting its application to be approved, the company had already bulldozed about 55 houses, removing even their concrete foundations, and - particularly distressing to Beutel - uprooted 40 bottle trees. Around the town, only a few decaying buildings still stand.

Coal from the Acland mine is trucked about 12km and dumped on to a towering stockpile just outside the small town of Jondaryan, to be transported to Brisbane by train. Jondaryan residents complain that the prevailing winds blow coal dust into their homes.

"You have to keep the windows closed all year, even in summer," says Glennis Hammond, 64. "I was perfectly healthy when I first came, but now I'm puffing and panting the whole time.

With China's appetite for Australian coal forecast only to grow, and India expected to become a major customer, Queensland is massively expanding its port facilities. Environmentalists fear the impact of dredging on marine life and on the Great Barrier Reef.

Drew Hutton, president of Lock the Gate, accuses state governments of failing to manage the mining boom responsibly. "They have simply opened the doors and said 'go to it, boys', and these largely foreign mining companies have done just that."

- NZ Herald

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