Australia's man against the mines

Australia's mining boom has made many fortunes, but some small towns are asking if the price is too high. Kathy Marks reports from Acland, Queensland

When an open-pit coal mine was established near Acland in 2002, company executives promised a new era of prosperity for the small Queensland town. "They said there would be jobs, jobs, jobs, and Acland would boom," recalls Glen Beutel, one resident.

Ten years on, the company, New Hope, is producing four million tonnes of coal annually, but Acland is almost deserted. As the mine has crept ever closer, locals have moved out. Only Mr Beutel has resisted the company's offers to sell up, and – apart from a family who rent a house from him – he is the sole remaining inhabitant of the once thriving town on the Darling Downs, west of Brisbane.

The fertile Downs are one of Australia's most productive food bowls, but beneath the fields of wheat, barley and corn lies a rich seam of black coal. As Australia – already the world's biggest coal exporter – seeks to triple production by 2020, the area has become a flashpoint for conflict, pitting mining companies against farmers and rural communities.

With its potholed streets and empty lots where houses once stood, Acland is a metaphor for the underside of the mining boom driving Australia's buoyant economy. Across the region – and throughout coal-rich Queensland and New South Wales – dozens of towns fear a similar fate. They include Wandoan, on the Darling Downs, where the Anglo-Swiss mining giant Xstrata was recently given approval to develop the country's biggest open-cut coalmine.

The two states are also the focus of a rapidly growing coal seam (shale) gas industry, which critics say pollutes groundwater and threatens the viability of agricultural land. And as Queensland massively  expands its port facilities to meet export demand, UNESCO – the UN body which monitors World Heritage-listed sites – has voiced concern about the impact on the Great Barrier Reef.

The irony for Acland, once home to 250 people, is that coal precipitated its birth as well as its demise. The town, founded in 1913, grew up around an underground colliery which fed the expanding steam rail network. In Mr Beutel's childhood, it employed nearly everyone, including his father. "The mine was our playground," he says. "We used to swim in the dam and fish for yabbies [freshwater crayfish]. The whole town would go into the bathhouse and shower."

Back then, the town was a "dusty, barren place that people always wanted to get away from". Later, though, his parents, Thelma and Wilf, planted hundreds of trees – eucalypts, jacarandas, melalucas – and helped create a park in the former railway reserve. (The branch line through Acland closed in 1969 and the mine shut 14 years later.) Koalas nested in the trees, and four local women, among them Thelma, raised funds for a war memorial, which was installed in the park.

The greening programme, which won Acland a series of Tidy Town awards in the 1980s, is the main reason Mr Beutel, 59, is reluctant to leave. "My parents spent much of their later years trying to make the town a better place to live, and I value the effort they put in," he says. "There are things here you can't shift – history, memories – things you can't put a dollar sign on."

Mr Beutel has lived all around Australia, and worked in the mining industry himself. But Acland was always home. Since he returned, he has seen his neighbours – sick of the noise, dust and trucks – move out one by one. Some were cajoled into selling up; others, allegedly, were pressurised.

"Some people had a very unpleasant time negotiating with the company. They were told no-one else would buy their property, that there would be mining within 100 metres of their house. There are a lot of horror stories." He alone resisted New Hope's blandishments – including a Christmas hamper which the company attempted to deliver. "I told them ‘I don't want it, you've ruined all my Christmases'."

Plans to mine beneath the town itself – which would have made life intolerable for Mr Beutel – have been thwarted, at least for now, by the advent of a new state government which vetoed further expansion. But already Acland is a ghost town. The company has bulldozed about 55 houses, smashing and removing even their concrete foundations, and – particularly distressing to Mr Beutel – uprooted 40 bottle trees.

Only a few decaying, abandoned buildings still stand. Roads are no longer maintained, and the grass verges are overgrown. The council has removed the Tidy Town sign. "This was the butcher's," says Beutel, pointing to a untidy plot of land. "That was the schoolhouse. And that was the bakery which was my father was running when he met my mother."

Coal from the Acland mine is trucked about eight miles and dumped on a towering stockpile just outside the small town of Jondaryan, to be transported to Brisbane by train. Jondaryan residents complain that the prevailing winds blow coal dust into their homes, coating their walls, floors and furniture.

"You have to keep the windows closed all year, even in the middle of summer," says Glennis Hammond, 64, who moved to Jondaryan three years ago. "I was perfectly healthy when I first came, but now I'm puffing and panting the whole time. No one here spends any time outside. That's fine if you can afford air-conditioning, but for me the house gets so hot."

The miners' advance across the Darling Downs has created unlikely alliances, with farmers standing shoulder to shoulder with environmentalists. Community-based protest groups have sprung up and blockaded projects. Drew Hutton, president of one group, the Lock The Gate Alliance, warns that Acland is "just the first … little towns all over Queensland could disappear".

One concern, in a country where just six per cent of the land is arable, is food security. Mr Hutton believes state governments – which have the power to approve or block new mines – are failing to manage the boom responsibly. "They have simply opened the doors and said 'go to it, boys', and these largely foreign mining companies have done just that."

Critics also accuse Australia, one of the world's largest per capita carbon emitters, of exporting dirty fuel. The country's second biggest customer (after Japan) is China, whose appetite for coal – to feed its breakneck industrialisation – is expected only to grow. Demand from India is soaring, too.

In Acland, Mr Beutel spends his days tending the public gardens planted by his parents and photographing the abundant wildlife, which includes frogs, butterflies and birds. His own garden is a riot of native plants and trees. Watching the town die around him has been "very stressful, very difficult", he says, but he does not regret staying on. And what remains is still important.

"A fellow who used to live here and came back to visit said how much he appreciated still being able to drive around the streets. A lady who had buried her dog in the park came back to exhume it when she heard the town was going to be mined. She was so pleased to find the park still being looked after."

He adds: "I think the town really serves as a monument to the horror of some of these mining companies. We hear about floods and bushfires and tsunamis, but the business world impacts in a similar way. It's no different to a Nagasaki or a Hiroshima bombed with a nuclear bomb."

New Hope Mining did not return calls from The Independent.

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