Farmers have won the latest round in a long, bitter legal battle over coal producer New Hope Group, after having been granted leave by the High Court to appeal a finding against them.
Farmers and landholders represented by the Oakey Coal Action Alliance (OCAA) scored a significant victory over New Hope on Friday, 5 June when they were granted special leave to take their case to the High Court.
The High Court decision allows OCAA to challenge the earlier ruling in favour of New Hope in the Queensland Court of Appeal.
The ruling is a major blow for New Hope in a saga over its New Acland mine expansion that has already dragged on for 13 years.
OCAA secretary Paul King said that Friday’s court decision gave farmers renewed hope in their struggle against the mine expansion.
“That special leave allows us to take the questionable judgment of the Court of Appeal and unravel this unholy mess and save the farmers of Acland,” Mr King said.
New Hope started the appeals process, which was settled in 2017.
Mr King said he felt for the people who had lost their jobs at the mine.
“But I feel more for farmers who are retaining their jobs,” he said.
For New Hope, it estimates the expansion will create more than 450 new jobs and pump $7 billion into the Queensland economy.
New Hope has made efforts to seek approval from the Queensland government for expansion, however the state government has refused to grant final state approvals until the legal process is complete.
Lock the Gate Alliance Queensland spokesperson Ellie Smith told the media that with the case heading to the High Court, New Hope should stop trying to pressure the Palaszczuk government into approving the expansion.
“This mine would kill farming jobs and threaten food production, including 10 million litres of milk, at a time when it is needed more than ever,” she said.
New Hope chief operating officer Andrew Boyd said there was nothing stopping the state government from granting the approvals for the project.
“We know, from discussions with various government departments, that they have all the information they need to grant the approvals,” he said.
No date has been set for the hearing of the High Court Appeal but will be a decision keenly awaited to settle a long legal affair.
A long-drawn legal battle
The legal battle, which has spanned 13 years, has seen the Oakey Coal Action Alliance (OCCA) challenging plans by New Acland Coal (NAC) for a Stage 3 expansion at the mine, 180 kilometres west of Brisbane.
Held up by complex state legislative demands, the project stalled in 2012 when the LNP government said it did not support the mine because of its impact on prime agricultural land.
Since then, NAC has been involved in a legal battle with landholders.
Last year, the Queensland Court of Appeal ruled against OCCA, finding that a 2017 Land Court decision against the mine was affected by apprehended bias.
The New Acland Coal mine is located on Queensland’s Darling Downs about 170 kilometres west of Brisbane and just north-west of Toowoomba.
The mine began operating in 2002 and a decade later was producing more than 5 million tonnes of thermal coal each year.
In May 2017, Justice Paul Smith rejected the application for the mining lease and environmental approval on the grounds of inadequate groundwater modelling and its impact on farming land.
NAC appealed the decision in the Supreme Court.
Justice Helen Bowskill sent the matter back to the Land Court in May 2018 for a rehearing under a different judge.
Justice Fleur Kingham reheard the case and decided that if NAC could comply with amendments to noise limits, the environmental authority for the mine expansion could be approved.
OCCA then appealed that decision and then NAC cross-appealed.
These were both heard in the Court of Appeal, which dismissed OCCA’s case in November 2019 and allowed the NAC cross-appeal, finding the first Land Court decision by Justice Smith had been affected by apprehended bias.
OCCA then applied for special leave to appeal to the High Court to have their whole case reheard.