When an open-cut coal mine was established near 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, a resident.

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

The fertile downs are one of Australia's most productive food bowls, but beneath the soil lies a rich seam of black coal. As Australia - already the world's biggest coal exporter - seeks to triple production by 2020, the area has become a flashpoint for conflict, pitting mining companies against farmers and rural communities.

With its potholed streets and empty lots, Acland is a metaphor for the underside of the mining boom. Throughout coal-rich Queensland and New South Wales, dozens of towns fear a similar fate. They include Wandoan, further north on the Darling Downs, where the Anglo-Swiss mining giant Xstrata was recently given approval to develop the country's biggest open-cut coal mine.


The two states are also the focus of a rapidly growing coal seam (shale) gas industry, which critics say pollutes groundwater and threatens the viability of agricultural land. And as Queensland massively expands its port facilities to meet export demand, Unesco, the UN body which monitors World Heritage-listed sites, has voiced concern about the impact on the Great Barrier Reef.

The irony for Acland, once home to 250 people, is that coal precipitated its birth. The town, founded in 1913, grew up around an underground colliery which fed the expanding steam rail network. In Beutel's childhood, it employed nearly everyone, including his father. "The mine was our playground," he says. Back then, the town was a "dusty, barren place that people always wanted to get away from". Later, though, his parents, Thelma and Wilf, planted hundreds of trees and helped create a park in the former railway reserve. (The branch line through Acland closed in 1969 and the mine shut 14 years later.) Koalas nested in the trees, and four local women, among them Thelma, raised funds for a war memorial.

The greening drive, which won Acland a series of Tidy Town awards in the 1980s, is the main reason Beutel, 59, is reluctant to leave. "My parents spent much of their later years trying to make the town a better place to live," he says. "There are things here you can't shift - history, memories - things you can't put a dollar sign on."

Beutel has lived all over Australia, and worked in the mining industry himself. But Acland was always home. Since he returned, he has seen his neighbours - sick of the noise, dust and trucks - move out one by one. Some were cajoled into selling up; others, allegedly, were pressured.

"Some people had a very unpleasant time negotiating with the company. They were told no one else would buy their property, that there would be mining within 100 metres of their house."

Plans to mine beneath the town itself - which would have made life intolerable for Beutel - have been thwarted, at least for now, by the advent of a new state Government which vetoed further expansion. But already Acland is a ghost town. The company has bulldozed more than 50 houses, smashing and removing even their concrete foundations, and - particularly distressing to Beutel - uprooted 40 bottle trees.

Only a few abandoned buildings still stand. Roads are no longer maintained, and the grass verges are overgrown. "This was the butcher's," says Beutel, pointing to an untidy plot of land. "That was the schoolhouse. And that was the bakery which my father was running when he met my mother."

The miners' advance across the Darling Downs has created unlikely alliances, with farmers standing shoulder to shoulder with environmentalists. Community-based protest groups have sprung up and blockaded projects. Drew Hutton, the president of the Lock The Gate Alliance, warns that Acland is "just the first ... Little towns all over Queensland could disappear".

One concern, in a country where just 6 per cent of the land is arable, is food security. Hutton believes state Governments are failing to manage the mining boom responsibly.

New Hope Mining did not return calls.

- Independent