New Hope Coal expansion: Governments stand aside as temperatures rise

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Queensland New Acland coal mine (image via @LockTheGate).

The coal industry cannot be relied on to consider the needs, let alone health, of the communities they move into. For our Queensland and Federal governments to continue to act in favour of coal-based vested interests is a betrayal of the next generation, writes Kaiya Ferguson.

QUEENSLAND'S environment department is investigating claims that the mining company New Hope may have circumvented due process by expanding Stage 2 operations (some of which overlap with proposed Stage 3 operations) at its New Acland coal mine, without waiting for approval.

This is disturbing, given the courts have not made their final judgment on Stage 3 of this protracted case.

This alleged expansion of New Hope’s operations near homes comes days after the Queensland Supreme Court handed down its final orders in the judicial review of the Land Court’s historic decision, which had recommended scrapping the expansion of the New Acland coal mine.

The Supreme Court referred the decision to a different member of the Land Court for further consideration, except for issues of noise, groundwater and intergenerational equity, which don’t meet the Land Court’s jurisdiction.

Young people and medical students in Queensland are not being heard or considered in these decision-making processes. It is us who are going to have to manage the environmental, community and health mess left by the fossil fuel industry and New Acland Coal (NAC).

Their actions harm the world we will live in and are a threat to our future while the Queensland Government stands aside and watches temperatures rise.

If New Acland Coal (NAC) were to succeed with their expansion plans, what would it mean for human health? It would indicate that coal industry profits and government budgets come before the health of our communities and future generations.

The expansion will compromise groundwater and agricultural land

In 2017, the Land Court found that the Stage 3 expansion should not proceed because of groundwater risks to the surrounding landholders:

'The principles of intergenerational equity are breached in at least one regard by the proposed revised Stage 3, with the potential for groundwater impacts to adversely affect landholders in the vicinity of the mine for hundreds of years to come.'

However, the Queensland Supreme Court’s final order states that groundwater was not within the Land Court’s jurisdiction and will be assessed in an application for an Associated Water Licence.

The impact of mining on water sources includes lowering the water table, subsidence, reduction of moisture content in soil and atmosphere, average global temperature increases via the "albedo effect", disturbance to rainfall and climate, and dust pollution.

Many of these inadvertently impact our health.

The final decision on the water issue must surely consider that coal mining significantly interferes with water resources, yet this lifeblood of agriculture and of future generations was not within the ambit of the Supreme Court.

The Land Court specifically took issue with the impacts of coal dust and the negligence of NAC to adequately monitor and respond to complaints.

The judge noted: 

"Evidence from nearby residents … indicates that dust has been an ongoing issue for them since NAC began its open cut coal mining operations some 15 years ago.” 

The judge also found NAC and the Queensland environment department had treated landholders “very poorly".

In a report by public health physicians, from Doctors for the Environment Australia, concluded in 2012 that essential measurements of potentially dangerous air particles – such as PM 2.5, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide – had not even occurred, despite communities complaining of respiratory symptoms.

Peer-reviewed studies assessing community health around coal mines in the UK, Europe, USA and India show significant ill health in coalmine regions.

Coal versus community

Time and time again, we see that the coal industry cannot be relied on to consider the needs, let alone health, of the communities they move into.

In the case of Acland, the Land Court found NAC and the Queensland environment department had treated landholders “very poorly” in the past, with the possibility that adverse health impacts may be occurring from current extensions.

NAC employed an active policy of purchasing as much land as possible and demolishing the bulk of the town’s buildings — what had been a viable town in 2004 rapidly became a ghost town.

Subsequently, NAC proceeded to poorly address or ignore community complaints related to the mine and its associated activities.

This ultimately resulted in the evidence presented to the Land Court that the existing mine caused extensive hardship, damaged community members’ physical and mental health and livelihoods, and eroded the once-thriving and cohesive rural community.

More recently, New Hope Coal spent $1.2 million promoting the New Acland mine before last year’s Queensland State Election, managing social media and petitions designed to appear as grassroots and community initiatives. Actions like this are but another example of youth’s voice being erased from the dialogue and replaced by industry propaganda.

It must be asked, where has the Government been during these years of pollution? When monitoring was knowingly inadequate, what have our representatives done to protect the communities who elected them?

One would hope our leaders might take an active approach in demanding adequate environmental and impact assessments in future, preventing events such as those at Acland.

For our Queensland and Federal governments to continue to act in favour of coal-based vested interests is a betrayal of the next generation. It will be young people and emerging health professionals who will be left to cope with the consequences.

In May 2017, the Queensland Land Court recommended outright rejection of New Acland Coal (NAC) Stage 3 expansion, after applying the most factual scrutiny ever seen for a coal mining project in Australia.

Unfortunately for health outcomes, the Supreme Court found the Land Court made legal errors, now subject to a new appeal.

In the interests of local communities and intergenerational equity, we can only hope that the courts will put people’s lives first and that the Queensland Government will have the sense to heed their advice.

Kaiya Ferguson is the National Student Representative of Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA). She is a final year medical student in Brisbane, at the University of Queensland. 

Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) and its medical student members are part of the initiative for a New Generation of Environmental Laws to help secure a world in which we and our future patients can live in a healthy stable environment. For further information see here and here.

This article was originally published in Renew Economy and has been republished with permission.

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