x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

I'll not sell up to coal company, says only man left in town

The last resident in Acland, 106km west of Brisbane, Australia, vows to defy open-cast miners and stay in park that his parents planted.

ACLAND, QUEENSLAND // Acland used to be a thriving little town. It had a school, two churches, several shops and a railway station. But in recent years, as an open-cast coal mine crept ever closer, residents have fled - and now only one householder remains, Glen Beutel.

Unlike his neighbours, Mr Beutel, 59, has refused offers by the mining company, New Hope Coal, to buy his property in the town, 160 kilometres west of the state capital Brisbane.

Over the past decade, he has watched Acland, on Queensland's fertile Darling Downs, gradually die around him. But he is determined to stay put, a symbol of Australians affected by the mining boom underpinning the country's economy.

Already the world's biggest coal exporter, Australia plans to double or even triple exports by 2020, with most production taking place in Queensland and New South Wales.

But as coal mining spreads across the two states, with new mines established and existing ones enlarged, it is increasingly coming into conflict with farmers, environmentalists and rural communities.

Farmers accuse the industry - along with the fast-growing coal seam gas industry - of polluting groundwater and threatening the viability of agricultural land.

The Downs, a major food bowl but also the site of a rich seam of black coal, are dotted with towns which fear Acland's fate.

Meanwhile, Unesco, the UN body which monitors World Heritage-listed sites, has voiced concern about the impact on the Great Barrier Reef of a planned massive expansion of Queensland's port facilities.

In 2002, New Hope promised Acland a new era of prosperity.

"They said there would be jobs, jobs, jobs, and Acland would boom," says Mr Beutel. Ten years on, the company mines 4 million tonnes of coal a year, but the town is almost deserted. Some residents were cajoled into selling up; others, allegedly, were pressured.

What has prevented Mr Beutel from joining the exodus is his family's close ties to the town. Acland used to be a "dusty, barren place".

Yet in the 1980s his parents, Thelma and Wilf, planted hundreds of trees and helped create a park in the former railway reserve. Koalas and other wildlife flourished and the greening programme won Acland a series of Tidy Town awards.

He said: "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.

"There are things here you can't shift - history, memories - things you can't put a dollar sign on."

Ironically, Acland was founded on coal; the town grew up around an underground colliery where nearly everyone, including Mr Beutel's father, worked. "The mine was our playground," he says. "We swam in the dam and fished for yabbies [crayfish]."

Queensland's state government recently vetoed New Hope's plans to mine directly beneath the town.

But the company has already bulldozed 55 houses, removing even their concrete foundations, and - particularly distressing to Mr Beutel - uprooted 40 native bottle trees.

Only a few decaying buildings still stand. The roads are potholed, and the grass verges overgrown.

Coal from Acland is taken about 12 kilometres by lorry and dumped on a towering stockpile outside the town of Jondaryan, to be transported to Brisbane by train.

Jondaryan residents complain that the prevailing winds blow coal dust into their home, coating their walls, floors and furniture.

"You have to keep the windows closed all year, even in summer," says Glennis Hammond, 64, who moved there three years ago.

"I was perfectly healthy when I first came, but now I'm puffing and panting the whole time."

Drew Hutton, president of a protest group, Lock the Gate, says he believes that state governments are failing to manage the mining 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 to countries such as China where demand for coal is soaring and is expected to continue to do so.

Mr Beutel spends his days tending the gardens planted by his parents and photographing wildlife. His own garden is a riot of native plants and trees. He says he does not regret staying.

"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."

 

foreign.desk@thenational.ae