[Broadcast on PShift, 4zzz, fm 102.1, at noon on friday 7 feb 2014]
We drove up to a small park in Acland to meet the town’s sole surviving citizen Glen. Trevor and I were invited to meet Glen by Nicki, an organiser of the Oakey Coal Action Alliance or OCCA for short. At the meeting in the park was Bob who is a member of a caravan association in Queensland. Glen and Nicki showed us around this beautiful part of the country. On our return Bob suggested that he bring 40 motor home enthusiasts out to the town on the weekend to enjoy the surroundings. Nicki told Bob there would be a public consultation meeting about the Environmental Impact of New Hope Coal’s proposal to dig up Acland and the surrounding 5,000 hectares of rolling countryside that lay before us.
Acland was a small town on Wakka Wakka country in the Darling Downs on the richest farming land – rich with black soil, bottle trees, poplar box trees, and apostle birds that constantly pick quarrels with each other. I say was. What remains is the last man standing or sitting, Glen Beutel, who tends to the public park and looks after the town taken over by New Acland Coal (NAC) which is in turn owned by the New Hope Corporation.
New Hope Coal even bought the local school from the state government for a song.
From the Anzac memorial you can see the concrete slabs where some of the Acland’s homes once stood. The houses have been removed by New Hope Coal for sale. This company owned by the Millner family has diversified its interests into Washington H Soul Pattinson Chemists, coal and pastoral land. Washington H Soul Pattinson was one of the top five donors to the Liberal Party in 2012-13 giving $250,000 before the last federal election. Both parent company and their subsidiary New Hope Corporation have reaped the benefit from successive Labour and Liberal governments. Labour Premier Peter Beattie opened the New Hope Coal mine at Acland on 13 March 2003.
Ken and Aileen moved to Acland to help out their daughter and son-in-law to farm the land near the town. They had worked hard for Ducklo on the Moonie Highway out side Dalby for 38 years running their own farm growing grain and cattle before retiring. In retirement, Ken and Aileen moved to Acland and built a brick house near their daughter. Ken and Aileen were across the road from the new mine and were paid nothing for their home when forced to sell up. Noise, trucks, coal dust, subsidence and stress forced their daughter to sell up. New Hope Coal compensated for the cost of their daughter’s home but not for Ken’s and Aileen’s. An experienced correspondent, Paul Cleary, who has visited the war zone of East Timor, broke down and cried after visiting Aileen in the donga she now shares with Ken in nearby Kingsthorpe. Cleary said it was the saddest story he had ever heard. What New Hope Coal has done may not equate with the violence of the armed militias in East Timor but the fear and depression that followed that conflict is evident here in Acland.
Miners harass Glenys by throwing rocks at her windows. She responds by telling them off. Glenys is a feisty housewife who lives in nearby Jondaryan. She prints flyers and does mail outs opposing Stage 3 extension of the Acland mine. She once criticised Premier Campbell Newman at a community cabinet only to take the brunt of him flying off the handle at Glenys, and him going red in the face abusing her.
I attended a meeting of the Oakey Coal Action Alliance on 3 February 2014 along with 22 others at the CWA hall in Jondaryan to hear alternatives to the coal-mine from Trevor Berrill, a renewable energy expert. Trevor outlined a sustainable way of providing as many jobs as the mine farming solar energy by placing PV arrays on marginal land.
Trevor Berill contrasted this to electricity from coal-fired power stations at Tarong and Millmeran. The solar stations could be placed strategically on suitable land near Acland which would complement and not wipe out grazing and agriculture as New Hope Coal is doing. The audience comprising mainly elders listened attentively as Berrill outlined a paradigm shift away from coal to renewables. He said that, were the area to adopt solar energy instead of burning fossil fuels, there would be no loss of employment in the district. He pointed out that occupational health and safety hazards of coal mining was far worse than solar plants given the toxic nature of the coal dust. He showed slides of the stream of pollution over Beijing that stretches all the way across the pacific ocean to the west coast of the United States – all this from burning of fossil fuels. He claimed that there is a move away from investing in fossil fuels to clean energy because of the air and water pollution produced. He showed slides of the air pollution in Brisbane in the winter because of the temperature inversion that traps pollution above the city with a blanket of cold air.
One woman in the audience responded to the talk by saying that she did not realise until he spoke that the government intended to allow New Hope Coal not only to destroy the town and neighbouring countryside but were also going to use public monies to subsidise the company. “Its criminal,” she commented. The state government has agreed to build rail infrastructure to support the project, replacing wooden bridges, extending passing loops so longer trains can cart coal to the Port of Brisbane. Never mind the black particulate matter that falls on kitchen tables all the way down the rail corridor.
After the talk I went out back to go to the toilet. While tea, scones and cakes were served inside, I stepped into the dark to look at the stars. I saw Orion and noticed a red station wagon was parked over the fence at the back of the hall. A blue light blinked inside. I heard voices coming from inside the car. Strangely the voices sounded like the noise made by the 22 people inside the hall as if a bug had been planted in the CWA hall and the occupants in the car were monitoring what was said. I stepped forward to get a closer look at the car. As I moved in the shadows, the sound of voices was ‘turned off’. Two dark figures sat quietly in the car. I returned to the meeting that was about to recommence. It was not later when we were leaving the meeting that I heard Nicki mention that another participant, Rob, had challenged the people in the car, asking what they were doing so near the hall. The woman at the steering wheel gave the implausible excuse that they’d been at the pub. Yet the car had been out back throughout the meeting and others reported seeing it at previous meetings. Boo. Why would people want to record the meeting? Was it New Hope Coal? Was it private security? It makes you jumpy, well it did me, and no doubt it put others at the meeting on edge, so much so that a complaint was lodged with the local police the next day providing them with a description of the car and its registration number.
There is money at stake, big money. Political reputations and share prices to consider. The coal dinosaur was to go out swinging leaving lives in ruin.
Glen Beutel is regularly harassed at his home in Acland. The Queensland Co-ordinator General who oversees submissions to the 4,500 page Environmental Impact Statement prepared by Sinclair Knight Merz for New Hope Coal. Glen shouts out at his tormentors. They report him to the police. The police come round and park outside his house. Glen thinks they have come to take him away from the only town he knows, the park that he lovingly restored, the street signs that he and Acland supporters insisted be put back up after the council had taken them down. Neither politicians, bureaucrats, police, nor the miners themselves wish to be seen as accessories to the fact that they helped destroy a town. That is really what an EIS is all about, Pontius Pilate washing his hands of the whole affair.
At the OCCA meeting I heard the older members of the audience complain about how difficult it was to access the EIS over 400 times bigger than Xavier Herbert’s ‘Poor Fellow, My Country’ which is the longest novel in the English language. Because of his failing eyes Ken could only read it on a TV screen but Aileen couldn’t get their old DVD player to read the EIS disk
The EIS prepared by Sinclair Knight Merz claims that the social impact is low.
Yet this is where an ancient culture and their descendants went up to the Bunya Mountains, it is a trade route where trees have been carved to produce scars and dots that tell the skin names of the people who lived there for thousands of years.
The water flows down through the valley not far from Glen Beutel’s house and the centre of town. This is where New Hope wanted to change the course of Lagoon Creek and make it into a straight concrete canal 8 kilometres long, a giant race of water to flood those below as happened to the town Grantham in the Lockyer Valley during the 2011 floods. Jondarayn is at the end of Lagoon Creek that is part of the Condamine river system; if the mine pits fill up after 4 inches of rain at Acland then the inhabitants of Jondaryan are in the firing line as Grantham was.
It is ironic that the miners’ extraction of coal that is burnt producing climate change should cause even more havoc and loss of life when the floods come. The Oakey Coal Action Alliance pointed out how foolhardy this scheme was. Permission to relocate Lagoon Creek was quickly revoked.
But the greater mad plan remains. To carve a huge hole or holes in the earth over an area of 16 kilometres by 10 kilometres and to subsidise the carting of that dusty cargo through the suburbs of the cities of Toowoomba and Brisbane and all the towns in between. You see the Queensland Government intends to beef up the existing rail.
New Hope wishes to clear 5,000 hectares of arable farmland by taking all the top soil away and to store it, to dig three huge pits and take the coal out by trucks and rail.
Sometime after the mine closes in 2035 New Hope Coal promises to put back the top soil. Mining companies don’t have a good track record with rehabilitation. At the last flood in 2013 its previous owner, BHP, had not rehabilitated 100-year-old Mt Morgan gold mine. Officials in the Department of Mines were fearful the mine wall would burst and pollute the water supply of the central Queensland city of Rockhampton. People living downstream were advised to stock up on bottled water. How many other towns do they intend to murder? The coal mine at Collinsville further north where they are constantly reducing the number of workers.
The Co-ordinator General has been called into Acland to perform the autopsy.
Today (7 Feb 2014) he is taking public submissions on the Environmental Impact Statement prepared by New Hope Coal.
In years to come will the state coroner find himself investigating deaths of farmers who have lost their homes, their livelihood? Liberal MP Sharman Stone from the Goldburn Valley claimed that two farmers have already taken their lives because of the threatened closure of the SPC Ardmona cannery down there.
Workers seem more resilient than the farmers somehow – farmers lose their houses in the way that Ken and Eileen did at Acland. Workers lose their jobs and move on … as if it has always been that way and always will be.
6 Feb 2014
NB The title for this article is a reference to Jarrow MP Ellen Wilkinson’s book The Town That Was Murdered (1939) that tells the story of the closure of a shipyard that caused loss of jobs and the 1936 Jarrow March to London to protest against unemployment in Britain during the Great Depression.
 Washington H. Soul Pattinson owns 60 per cent of the New Hope Group, and in turn owns 24 per cent of Australian Pharmaceutical Industries, which includes Soul Pattinson and Priceline [The Australian, 4 Feb 2014].
 ‘Acland Sustainable Energy Plan – divesting away from coal’ by Trevor Berrill Feb 2014.