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Mining firms decimate communities

Acland_demolitionWhile the rest of the world endures the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), Australia’s mining resources boom is insulating the island continent from its worst effects. But the mining boom has a dark side: open cut mines are literally swallowing up entire communities, reports Peter Hackney.

Glen Beutel grew up in Acland and he intends dying there.

But he may not get his wish if mining company New Hope Coal gets its way.

Acland was once a thriving little community on the fertile plains of Queensland’s Darling Downs.

With a population of around 400 at its peak, its grid of 10 streets contained a general store, primary school, service station, post office, baker, two churches, a community hall, garage and about 60 homes.

Acland was bestowed with Tidy Town Awards by the Keep Australia Beautiful Council and was famous for its beautiful park, its landscaped streets and the Acland Coal Mine Museum, on the site of the old colliery that closed in 1984.

After the mine closed, Acland went through a period of slow decline – but by the early 2000s it was turning around.

Retirees, “tree changers” and commuters from the nearby city of Toowoomba started moving in, attracted to the affordable housing and pretty environs.

Today, Acland is a ghost town.

Acland’s death sentence came on Thursday, March 13 2003 when then-Queensland Premier Peter Beattie officially opened the New Acland Coal Mine a few kilometres north-east of town.

At first, it was thought the new mine might benefit Acland.

There was no indication that it would be a threat.

New Hope Coal, the company that operates the open cut mine, even took steps to reassure residents.

“In 2004, the company stated it wasn’t interested in buying any properties in the town,” says Mr Beutel.

But by early 2005, New Hope began a series of door-to-door meetings with locals. By the end of the year, the company had acquired more than 80 per cent of the town.

The great exodus of Acland was underway.

Some residents were happy to sell but many felt they had no choice, with the dust and noise from the mine creeping ever closer.

AclandMr Beutel alleges company officials told some residents that if they didn’t sell, they’d have mining literally on their doorsteps.

There was also a belief that because the New Acland Coal Mine was “a project of state significance”, the Queensland Government could order that land be resumed, so residents may as well sell anyway.

Whatever the machinations behind the death of Acland, Glen Beutel is now the last man standing. He is the town’s sole remaining homeowner.

“I’m not entirely alone,” he says. “There’s one other occupied building here – a family is living in the old bakery.”

Mr Beutel owns the bakery, which was once his father’s shop.

“I rent it out to them. It’s nothing flash but it gives them a roof over their heads,” he says.

“And I’ve got my animals,” he adds, referring to the many native animals that visit his home including birds, reptiles, koalas and the occasional kangaroo. In fact, the one bright spot of Acland is that local wildlife is flourishing in the ghost town – for now.

The town itself, however, is crumbling.

Many of the Acland’s buildings have been demolished or removed.

Looters have stripped much of what remains.

And Mother Nature has taken her course: grass and weeds are reclaiming concrete and bitumen, birds roost inside houses, roofs have caved in and walls have collapsed. Like some stereotypical Hollywood Western, tumbleweeds even roll through town.

Only Mr Beutel’s property, the park and the war memorial remain as they once were, thanks to Mr Beutel's efforts.

Once a week, he mows the grass in the park, which was established by his late parents Thelma and Wilfred on an overgrown railway reserve two decades ago.

It’s just one of many examples in Acland of the Beutel touch. The Beutels planted hundreds of trees, leading to Acland’s “town of trees” moniker. They landscaped median strips and footpaths – particularly in the main street, where an impressive row of bottle trees, flowers and native shrubs still stands.

In recognition of their efforts, the Keep Australia Beautiful Council crowned Acland the tidiest town in Queensland in 1989. Acland also won its category (population 200-400) numerous times through the '80s and '90s.

“It’s upsetting to think my parents’ work will end up at the bottom of a hole,” says Mr Beutel.

“Australia has got hundreds of years of coal supply left. Plenty of places with coal don’t have towns or productive farmland on top of them. This is needless destruction of a community.”

The fate of the war memorial and the heritage-listed coal mine museum are particular sore points.

“The previous mine had good relations with the community,” said Mr Beutel. “They had respect for the town. But this New Hope lot don’t care. They have no respect for heritage. They couldn’t care less about a heritage listing or the sacrifices Acland men and women have made for our country.”

Acland_koalaAnd the Ipswich-based mining company doesn’t do much to counter his claims. To date, the company hasn’t bothered replying to requests for comment for this article.

The Queensland Department of Infrastructure and Planning (DIP), meanwhile, says that contrary to popular belief, the destruction of Acland was not “a done deal”. Stage Three of the New Acland Coal Mine – the one that would see Acland swallowed up by open cut mining – has not yet been approved.

“New Hope Coal has been asked to submit a supplementary Environmental Impact Statement (EIS),” said a DIP spokesperson. “They are expected to submit this by the fourth quarter of 2010. The EIS will then be evaluated and the Coordinator-General will announce a decision on whether Stage Three can proceed.”

The Greens are the sole political party to have opposed Stage Three. Greens leader Bob Brown visited Mr Beutel in Acland on August 10, highlighting the party's commitment not only to Mr Beutel but to Australian communities threatened by mining.

Queensland Greens spokesperson Libby Connors believes there is still a chance Acland – or what's left of it – can be saved if enough people make their views known to state and federal governments.

While the public submission period regarding Stage Three has closed, Ms Connors said citizens could still write to the Queensland Minister for Natural Resources, Stephen Robertson, as well as their local MPs.

"The whole culture of the Queensland Government is to approve these applications with conditions. So there is a very real risk that Stage Three will be approved," says Ms Connors. "But we know the State Government is watching this issue very closely. The more opposition there is, the less they can afford to be flippant and just approve it with conditions, like they usually do "

The issue is far from restricted to Acland, she added, with mining companies eyeing off the Darling Downs townships of Felton and Wandoan, as well as prime farmland.

But right now it’s Acland under the gun. No-one can say what will happen to the town, to Mr Beutel or the local wildlife.

Amidst the uncertainty, one thing’s for sure: Mr Beutel plans on staying put.

“I don’t want to go anywhere,” he says. “This is my place in the world. It's a haven for me. It's a comforting place, it's home.

“I grew up here and I intend to die here.”

Peter Hackney is associate editor at The Scavenger.

A photo gallery portraying the sad plight of Acland can be accessed here.

This article was originally published on the Finda Toowoomba website.

Images from top: Entrance to the town of Acland, which is under threat of being swallowed up by a nearby open cut coal mine; Glen Beutel – the last man standing in the town of Acland. Photos by Peter Hackney; A koala makes itself at home on Church Street, Acland. Acland's new status as a ghost town has been a boon to some local wildlife - but what will happen to them if the town is destroyed? Photo by Glen Beutel.


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