A whole lot of trouble

The New Acland Coal Mine. Photos supplied.
The New Acland Coal Mine. Photos supplied.
It is not necessarily good news when the mining company comes to town, says Queensland cattle farmer Sid Plant. He tells Mark Price of his experience living next door and why Mataura should leave its coal in the hole.

Clouds of dust and diesel fumes, all-day noise, ruined farmland, skyrocketing house prices and rents, crumbling communities.

These are the cards some rural Australians are being dealt as "open-cut" mines spread across the land in pursuit of energy and mineral treasures.

But, could it happen in Eastern Southland?

Solid Energy, the state-owned enterprise developing the region's lignite fields, says "no".

An impression of what the Mataura briquette plant will look like.
An impression of what the Mataura briquette plant will look like.
But, in Mataura tomorrow, Queensland farmer Sid Plant will describe to whoever is interested the impact "open-cut" coal-mining has had on his part of the Darling Downs, near Toowoomba, over the past 15 years.

The Otago Daily Times caught up with Mr Plant before he left home for his speaking engagement.

"Different people have said to me New Zealand needs the money.

"Personally, if I owned the whole of New Zealand I'd be trying to manage without it [the lignite].

"If it has to be mined, it will be a pity."

Mr Plant's Queensland cattle and cropping farm borders the New Hope Corporation's New Acland Coal Mine.

Sid Plant on his Darling Downs farm.
Sid Plant on his Darling Downs farm.
His house is about 5km from where most of the mine machinery operates at the moment.

He is not directly "downwind" but he still has problems.

"When it started, it kept us awake for two years.

"It still wakes us but because of where they have moved to, and the mountains of bloody stuff they've dumped between us and the pits, it's not quite as painful as it was for us."

His daughter and grandchildren live on the same farm but much closer to the active part of the mine.

"The noise still wakes the kids periodically."

The mine operates "24-7" with Christmas Day and "the odd day here and there" being the only exceptions.

But worse than the noise, is the dust.

"It's a bloody menace.

"The dust is always a menace for anybody that's downwind.

"The people who were nearest to it and downwind ...most of them are sick or have moved.

"Needless to say once the mine started, land values dropped by a half or a third."

He describes the dust reaching his farm as "dirt dust" but other places, where the coal is trucked to a rail link, have problems with coal dust.

"Some people can't cope with the dust.

"They do everything they can, but it just chokes them up.

"It's all over everything.

"It destroys their cars."

The New Acland mine produces nine million tonnes of high-grade coal per year - some exported and some used to fire an electricity power station.

The mine employs 360 people and claims to support another 400 "flow-on" jobs in Queensland.

It contributes "significantly" to the Queensland economy.

Solid Energy describes its plans to develop the Eastern Southland lignite fields as possibly being "New Zealand's insurance policy" while alternatives to fossil fuels are found.

And, it says, the development will help New Zealand maintain a high standard of living.

Mr Plant says coal-mining damaged the standard of living of his community.

And while he considered it "a bit impertinent" to tell Eastern Southland people what they should do, based on his experience he predicted what might be ahead for them.

"There will be people who will be in the footprint of it [the mine] and they are more than likely going to be bought out, whether they like it or not.

"And, you know, massive family stress comes out of that.

"There's community stress too as the community breaks down.

"I want to try and give them a feel for what that was like for us."

He is concerned for those who will be neighbours of the mine and he will encourage people to become familiar with New Zealand's mining legislation to "try and protect themselves".

"They are going to get a decline in lifestyle and they are going to find it's going to be impossible to get staff, if they have staff, if they are a small business.

"Everybody goes to the mine, if they can."

In New Acland's case, he said, most workers initially came from other mines because locals did not have the skills.

But, now there was a percentage of locals who worked there.

"I have no argument with anybody who works on the site.

"My argument is with the [New Hope] board and with our government because for at least 50 years our government has been so married to the royalties that everything has been done to enable it.

"While they have things like environmental protection agencies and departments of resource management, their whole goal really has been to make it happen.

"So there's been a continuous erosion of freehold title rights and the companies are accustomed to just rolling over the top of anybody who gets in their way."

Tegan Plant - a distant relative of Mr Plant - is a newspaper reporter an hour or so from the mine, in a town called Chincilla [pop. 3681].

It is the melon capital of Australia.

She says the establishment of new mines led to conflict with farmers but there were other concerns for the small towns in the region.

Two of those she described as the rental "crisis" and the housing "crisis".

"We have got massive rental and house prices at the moment."

Those working for the "projects" and getting big wages were able to afford the high prices while those doing "normal jobs" could not.

"This again is a cause of divide in the town."

Australian media reports say the elderly and low-income earners are being "squeezed out" of the area towards Toowoomba, which is having to find ways to provide low-cost housing.

And Ms Plant says there are concerns about where the Government spends its royalties - "whether they are going to spend them back in the areas where the projects are or whether it is all getting spent in Brisbane".

"That's one of the main concerns."

Ms Plant says mining "saved" the town of Chincilla during a long-term drought when farmers had little to spend.

But now she believes some of the town's small businesses are under pressure because of the changing needs of a changing population.

She leaves her newspaper job this weekend for a much better paid job in a resource company.

Sid Plant describes the increase in mining as "massive" over the past 50 years and most pronounced in the past 10 years.

He says about 40 new open-cut coal mines are "on the drawing board" for Queensland.

"It's really not appropriate.

"It's just bloody greed.

"And, it doesn't translate into dollars in the pockets of average Australians.

"In fact, its impact on our economy has just made things tougher for most of them I think ..."

Mr Plant remembers the time before the arrival of the mine, when farmers grazed cattle and grew crops on the deep, fertile soils that overlay the coal.

Their biggest issue was trying to predict and live with the highly variable rainfall.

In the 1960s came the first open-cut coal mine - 600km north of Acland - which helped fuel the industrialisation of Japan.

Things then were "fairly quiet" around Acland - a former coal-mining town with about 50 or so residents - popular with retirees and some Toowoomba commuters.

It was "quite a tight little community" and in 1989 it was Queensland's "tidy towns" winner.

Then came the coal exploration.

Mr Plant says residents of Acland were told mining would be "wonderful" for the town.

"The school will be twice as big and business will be booming and people will live here ..."

Stage one of the mining project had little impact but was "sort of like a wedge really".

The stage-two expansion got approval "pretty easily" and stage three has led to Acland disappearing.

Acland found itself "in the path of the mine".

Mr Plant: "Nobody wanted to leave but the mine started and it was dusty and noisy ... then it was like a panic and within not long at all, six months I guess, a lot of them sold to the mine."

Most of the houses have now been removed.

The only resident still refusing to sell appears to have become an Australian folk hero, referred to in the media as "the last man standing".

Mr Plant says he has been arguing with the mining company ever since the mine was established and one of his ongoing concerns is over how the company rehabilitates land.

He estimates the area mined so far - its "footprint" - to be about 5km by 7km.

But where there was once topsoil to 10m in some places, there were "bloody mountains" covered in just a thin layer of "long-dead topsoil".

"I think the legal requirement is 60mm, and underneath that it's poison."

"There's no subsoil.

"There's nothing that's ever had roots in it necessarily.

"There's no biology in it.

"Most farmers just see it as desecration. This outfit here's proud of its rehab. I think it's disgusting."


The facts
• An estimated 3 billion tonnes of lignite are considered to be "available" in the coalfields of Waimumu, Croydon and Mataura, in Eastern Southland.
• State owned enterprise Solid Energy has bought 3500ha of land there, including the small New Vale Coal Mine, and has "secured access" to 1.5 billion tonnes of recoverable resource.
• In June, Solid Energy expects to start up a $25 million plant to process 150,000 tonnes of lignite into 90,000 tonnes of low moisture, higher-energy briquettes.
• If this "demonstration plant" proves successful, Solid Energy will decide whether or not to build a bigger "commercial-scale" briquetting plant.
• The SOE is also investigating the viability of turning lignite into fertiliser and into transport fuel.


The event
• This weekend's "Keep the Coal in the Hole Summer Festival" will be held on a farm close to Solid Energy's site near Mataura.


- mark.price@odt.co.nz

 

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