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Jun 4, 2020 • 16m 20s

The Queensland town of Acland has been all but swallowed by a coal mine. There is only one resident left. Tomorrow the High Court will decide if he’ll be swallowed, too.

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Like a scene from ‘The Castle’

238 • Jun 4, 2020

Like a scene from ‘The Castle’

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

In Queensland, a small town has been essentially swallowed by the expansion of a coal mine.

For decades residents have been fighting this mine - and the case could end tomorrow, as it reaches the High Court of Australia.

Today: Rick Morton on what happened to the town of Acland - population one.

**

RUBY:

Rick, what is Acland like? Can you take me back 20 or 30 years and tell me a bit about the town.

RICK:

Acland’s this beautiful little kind of almost oasis on the Darling Downs. It's between Toowoomba and Oakey, just west of the Great Dividing Range. It actually didn't exist before 1913, and they decided to put a railway through that. And it became this prosperous little center in the middle of this kind of really productive agricultural farmland.

RUBY:

Rick Morton is a senior reporter with The Saturday Paper.

RICK:

And, you know, it was growing over the decades to the point where, you know, in 1989, it won Tidy Town of the Year, which the locals still talk about. And, you know, it was...it was a center for a lot of the farmers in the area. You know, they're just really salt of the earth people who enjoyed the kind of the calm, I guess, of living in a rural community. They live a pretty content life.

You know, some of the people in the town can trace their families back to the early eighteen hundreds in that area.

RUBY:

So what is Acland like now?

RICK:

It's… it's a ghost town. It's almost entirely gone. There is only one landowner left. And, you know, essentially a coal mine has been allowed to swallow the entire town.

RUBY:

Can you tell me about the last man left there, the sole resident of Acland? Who is he?

RICK:

Glenn Beutel is the only landholder left in Acland. And, you know, he was born there. He's lived there his entire life. His parents married and settled in Acland.

Archival tape -- Beutel:

My parents have done so much in the park. Tidiest town in Queensland in 1989. People were moving here because it was a pleasant place to live.

RICK:

I know so many people like Glen from my upbringing. He's really careful with his words. He doesn't think what he has to say has a lot of value, even though it absolutely does. And his ideas are interesting and he's thoughtful.

Archival tape -- Beutel:

It's a complex situation. And I don't like to miscommunicate things.

RICK:

And he was thoughtful in talking about this story because, you know, he was very clear to me that he begrudges no worker who earns a living in mining because he used to work in the exploration industry himself.

Archival tape -- Beutel:

I don't want to bad mouth the industry or anything. It's just that in this case, their behavior in Acland and the surrounding area has been awful.

RICK:

His issues are more specifically about the management of this particular mine that has so, so eaten the town.

RUBY:

So what can you tell me about this mine, the coal mine surrounding the town of Acland?

RICK:

Right. So the coal mine’s called the New Acland coal mine, and it's been around... stage one has been around since 2000, the turn of the millennium. But things really got a bit dicey there from around 2006 when New Hope Coal, which owns the entire operation… they started stage two and they started expanding to within, you know, 1.5 kilometers of the town of Acland itself. They started systematically buying up almost the entirety of the town.

Archival tape -- Beutel:

You can’t stop people buying and selling houses. And I don't make any judgments about the people who sold for whatever personal reason. But under the circumstances, the company was supposed to be studying the environment and in Acland there was a social environment.

RICK:

People were fearful that the mine would kind of ruin that, the quality of life. So they sold. They sold their homes and their livelihoods to that, to the mine itself. And, you know, you can see in satellite images where it's disappeared. But it wasn't just the houses that the mine started buying, it was the community hall, the churches - there's two churches that have been entirely removed from the town.

The telephone exchange that they moved from one end of the town to the other, they started moving the power poles in anticipation of what they thought would be an expansion. And they even got rid of the trees. These Queensland bottle trees...

Archival tape -- Beutel:

There was about 40 bottle trees from the town removed. We had a couple things that I planted when I was 16...

RICK:

… which were quite significant. And so some of them had to be moved to the National Arboretum in Canberra.

You know, Beutel says the miners kind of survey the now disappeared town, and for reasons of narrative simplicity, say locals made the choice to fill up and leave a settlement that was already dying. You know, that was always their contention that the town was dead anyway and it wasn't going anywhere. And they simply did everyone a favor by snapping up the property.

But that wasn't the case. I mean, it wasn't fading away to dust like NENO, new hope coal would have you believe. But it has now, as a result of this kind of almost like a war of attrition, I guess, between the mine and the townsfolk themselves.

It's not entirely gone. Glenn’s still there. But he says that people just had this idea in their head now that it's a ghost town and that no one cares anymore.

Archival tape -- Beutel:

It's like scavengers and bloody hyenas, they all come around seeing what… what they can souvenir.

Archival tape -- unknown:

Yeah.

Archival tape -- Beutel:

People come up from Brisbane reading on the Internet that it’s the closest ghost town to Brisbane.

RICK:

Buildings are vandalized. And he says that the mind doesn't really care because it's always being certainly, if not their stated intention. But it's certainly been a happy outcome for them that this town that they wanted gone is gone not just in a physical sense, but almost in the memory of a lot of people as well.

You know, I did speak to you, Acland Coal, about why they brought up the town. And they know, they said there was nothing strange in the decision. And I'm gonna quote from them. They said, as is normal practice, the NAC has also acquired land around the mining leases by voluntary private agreement with landowners as a buffer to the mining operations.

They said there is nothing unusual that has occurred in the current circumstances. And look, they're not wrong. This is very normal practice, but it's kind of a chicken-and-the-egg situation. It’s like, would the landowners have sold their homes were it not for the really close encroachment of this coal mine?

RUBY:

And so the mining company, the way it describes what it's done, it sounds like it’s saying the town is the buffer.

RICK:

Yes, ironically yes. The town became the buffer for something that obviously they believe is more valuable.

RUBY:

We'll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Rick, with a coal mine encroaching on the town of Ackland for years now, what happens to the people in Acland and the surrounding areas who have held out against the expansion? What has the impact been on them?

RICK:

It's left a lot of people in ruins, to be quite honest. I mean, there has been a decades long fight against this mine. It resulted in the longest land court case in Queensland history in the 120 year history of the Queensland Land Court. And one of the central figures is Eileen Harrison. She's a former alpaca farmer, current pensioner

Archival tape -- Eileen:

We lived outside Dalby on the Menindee Highway for 38 years…

RICK:

She retired about 22 years ago and she said that she spent about 18 of them fighting this mine.

Archival tape -- Eileen:

It's just been a marathon. And there's things that I have done. It has never been heard of before.

RICK:

And, you know, she's already had to move out of her dream retirement home. So her and her husband built this beautiful home: a brick home, three bedrooms, it was perfect for what they needed in retirement.

She was saying that for the first time in the history of their farming existence, more than 90 per cent of their calves started dying when stage two of the mine came within one point two kilometers of their property. Her horses had this horrific sinus problem. She took them to the vet and their sinuses were clogged with fine dust from the mine. And the vet was like, well, we can clean out their sinuses for two thousand dollars a pop, but you'll have to come back in three months and do it all over again. And her alpacas were, you know, they were being born with birth defects and they weren't thriving.

Archival tape -- Eileen:

They couldn’t stop the mining for anything like that.

RICK:

So, you know, they couldn't stay there, but they owned the house, which they built, but not the land underneath it. And because of that arrangement, they actually received no compensation from the mine. The compensation went to the landowner. They got nothing for it.

RUBY:

Can you tell me more about the legal fight between New Hope and these residents?

RICK:

So, you know, in the time that Eileen and a whole cast of others have been fighting the mine, new hope has been repeatedly sanctioned for its actions.

Last year, it was actually fined for illegally drilling 27 bores and preparing a further 41 on land within its lease, but it's not designated for mining activity. And, you know, the Queensland Department involved in regulating this classify this as a serious breach. But even so, they find them three thousand one hundred fifty two dollars.

RUBY:

That’s all? Three grand?

RICK:

Right, which as I said to Aileen is the price of a used car. So there is this tendency to act first, get permission later. A lot of New Hope’s actions have been entirely legal. It owned the land, it cleared and stripped and mined it - typically under the Acland Pastoral Group, which is a company it wholly owns. So these were all perfectly legal things that it did. You know, it was perfectly legal. In fact, it was encouraged for them to buy up the buffer zone for any mine. It just so happened that the buffer zone in this case with an entire town.

RUBY:

So where does Aileen Harrison fit into all of this? How organized is this effort that she's a part of?

RICK:

Yeah, well, I mean, they're a scrappy bunch of local farmers, pensioners and community members called the Oakey Coal Action Alliance. It actually was mentioned in the land court case when it happened that, you know, a lot of these figures… it was like they’d come out of the film The Castle.

It's something that comes up a lot in my job, I'm speaking to people who don't move in the circles that we move in, like in media or politics or law. And they just go, you know, we don't know what the law says or we don't know how, you know, you guys do things in the city. But they were saying they've got a sense that this is wrong.

Archival tape -- reporter:

The long term future of the New Acland coal mine on the Darling Downs is in doubt after the land court ruled against expansion plans.

RICK:

In 2017, the Oakey Coal Action Alliance became the first community group in Australian history to actually defeat a coal mine in court, which was a huge deal.

Archival tape -- unknown:

The state's land court has delivered a victory for the people, with the Darling Downs community winning their fight against the Atlanta coal mine expansion, a decision many fought hard for.

Archival tape -- unknown:

All our grandchildren and future generations can now work this beautiful country that has been being destroyed.

Archival tape -- unknown:

But it’s not over just yet, the decision is ultimately up to the state government...

RICK:

But the victory was incredibly short lived because, you know, over the next three years, there were appeals and counter appeals by New Acland coal and Newhope Group and the case finally reached the Supreme Court, which sent it back to the land court.

But crucially, and this is quite important. It instructed the lower court to exclude consideration of issues around groundwater and intergenerational equity. Now, that was actually the issue that won them the original case in the land court. That was the most pressing concern for the judge or the member that heard that case. So with those restrictions now in place, the second hearing at the land court, which was before a different member, it recommended that the mine extension be approved. So, you know, the collection alliance appealed, of course. And then New Acland Coal Cross appeared in Queensland's Court of Appeals, which is the highest court in Queensland, and they won.

So, you know, last year, Eilene and the Oakey Coal Action Alliance applied for special leave to appeal that decision in the High Court of Australia. And that hearing takes place on Friday.

RUBY:

Do you have any sense of what will happen?

RICK:

Look, it's an incredibly tough one. I mean it's actually very difficult or incredibly rare for the high court to hear or allow special leave applications in their own court. But if the Oakey coal action a lot succeeded in being granted permission to appeal in the high court, then their fight continues. This is really their last chance, because if they don't win, then all of the avenues for appeal have been exhausted.

If the high court appeal does not go ahead, then stage three will happen. And stage three of this mine, even though it doesn't include the town of Acland anymore, will completely surround the town of Acland.

Glen will be left in a town that will become an island surrounded by a coal mine. And with almost no access in or out, so... he's sad. You can hear the disappointment in his voice because this is a town that his parents in large part built. The park is named after him. Beutel Park, they made it pretty with the flowers and the trees.

Archival tape -- Beutel:

I had no intention, or never had wanted to leave because I'd just...my parents had passed away and I'd always dreamed of living here in my retirement.

RICK:

And there are memories in this place. And he's a man kind of lost in time in that sense because the world has changed around him. But his memories are as strong as ever.

Archival tape -- Beutel:

And I'm aware of all the effort that went in to make it a better place to live.

RICK:

And you get the sense that I think we could all agree you wouldn't want to. He doesn't want to let them go.

RUBY:

Rick, thank you so much for your time today.

RICK:

Thanks, Ruby.

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--

RUBY:

Also in the news:

Peaceful protests have continued in America's major cities for an eighth night in a row.

In New York police arrested about 200 protesters, and in Washington DC the National Guard fired pepper spray.

**

Victoria Police has said it will not fine people attending a Melbourne Black Lives Matter protest highlighting Aboriginal deaths in custody this weekend.

Police are expecting thousands to attend the protest, with similar events planned in other Australian cities.

**

And, new figures from the Bureau of Statistics show Australia's GDP fell by 0-point-3 per cent in the March quarter.

Another fall for the current June quarter is considered certain - due to the lockdowns - meaning Australia will suffer its first recession in 29 years.

**

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.

The Queensland town of Acland has been all but swallowed by a coal mine. After decades of legal battle, there is only one resident left. Tomorrow the High Court will decide if he’ll be swallowed, too.

Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton.

Background reading:

How one mine ate a town in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and *The Saturday Paper**. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem. Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio. New episodes of 7am* are released every weekday morning. Make sure you don’t miss out by subscribing on your favourite podcast app. I’m Ruby Jones, see you next week.

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