The Queensland town of Clermont was at the centre of the coal debate last year when anti-Adani protesters visited the region, but a new debate has inflamed the community. This time questioning the environmental impact of a new proposed thermal coal mine.
- An open-cut, export-grade thermal coal project has been proposed 25km north-west of the Queensland town of Clermont
- The pro-coal community have objected to development through the Blair Athol State Forest
- One researcher has questioned the veracity of Huaxin Energy’s self-assessed environmental impact report, with concerns for the region’s koala population
The Moorlands Coal Project, owned by Chinese company Huaxin Energy, is a proposed open-cut, export-grade thermal coal development project planned 25 kilometres north-west of Clermont.
But the staunchly pro-coal community is concerned about the proposed location of a haul road, arguing the development through the Blair Athol State Forest will have a negative impact on koala populations and the tourism economy.
Koala data collection questioned
Before any development can begin, a potential mine requires an Environmental Authority (EA) issued by the Department of Environment and Science (DES).
The self-assessed application judges the level of potential risk, through mapping and data collection.
But the assessment in Huaxin’s application, that koalas native to the region would be minimally impacted, has raised some questions with ecological researcher Bill Ellis.
Dr Ellis has more than 20 years’ experience monitoring koalas and working with coal mines in the Central Highlands and Coalfields, and said the data they used did not match with his experiences.
“I don’t think you could be working in that area and not know that there are koalas living there and that it’s a significant population that’s had a long history of research.”
Dr Ellis was concerned the methods used to measure the data were not appropriate for the region, and did not draw on readily available data from nearby mines.
“The koalas are quite sparsely distributed, so it’s not surprising you don’t find a lot of evidence of them. But that’s how they inhabit our drier, sub-humid woodland areas,” he said.
The effects of a new coal mine can be direct or indirect on wildlife, and include increased traffic, displaced populations, and destroyed habitat as well as fragmented territory.
Clermont local Frieda Berry-Porter was also concerned about the wider implications on Queensland’s protection of the species.
“We all know with the recent bushfires and the prolonged drought that they’re already suffering. So for us it’s a last sanctuary for them.”
In a joint statement with the Department of Natural Resources Mines and Energy (DNRME), the DES said the mine had proposed a realignment of the mining lease, which was currently being assessed.
“A subsequent ecological survey has been conducted at the new areas, which considered the potential impacts to flora and fauna proposed by the alternate access road location, and was considered by the applicant to be unlikely to result in a significant impact for any of the identified species.
“DES is currently reviewing the findings of the ecological survey.”
It is not just koalas that could be affected by the proposed construction.
Tourism is Clermont’s other main economic driver.
The town was born after the discovery of gold in 1861 sparked an influx of miners, and one of Queensland’s major gold rushes.
Now fossickers travel from around the country to use metal detectors and scour the ground in designated areas, looking for gold buried in the soil.
The proposed haul road could prevent prospectors from accessing the McMasters General Permission Area (GPA) in the state forest.
Ms Berry-Porter owns a prospecting shop in Clermont, where many of her clients are coal miners who fossick as a hobby.
She said she was concerned about what shutting off the GPA from the state forest would mean for the economy.
“[Clermont] has the most accessible goldfields in Queensland, [and] a very important part of the wider Queensland economy as well.
“We believe it is the role of the government and the ministers to act with a duty of care to protect the inherent values of the state forest.”
Ms Berry-Porter, her husband, and others have attended formal mediation, as required by the Land Court, with Huaxin Energy.
A DNRME spokesperson said nine objections had been referred to the Land Court for consideration.
“In conjunction with any recommendations made by the Land Court, DNRME considers a range of factors and potential impacts when assessing mining lease applications.
“Objections are currently being considered by the Land Court regarding the Moorlands Coal Mining Lease. Subsequently we are unable to make any comments regarding the mining lease alignments at this time.”
Last month, Huaxin Energy published a classified notice in the Herald Sun stating future community consultation will occur.
“Huaxin Energy will work with relevant stakeholders, wildlife and other experts, native title parties, and the local community to ensure the project is developed in an environmentally sustainable manner and with regards to existing cultural heritage,” the notice said.
Clermont made headlines last year, when former Greens leader Bob Brown led an anti-Adani convoy to the Central Highlands town.
The frosty reception from locals was seen as indicative of a wider view of the so-called quiet Australians, who are credited with swaying the federal election in the Government’s favour on issues such as the resource sector.
Queensland was key to the election victory, with two Labor seats being lost.
In April 2019, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk raised Labor’s support for the resource sector, and concerns about the Moorlands coal project during Question Time in Parliament.
“In fact, it [a letter raising concerns] expresses concerns about threats to native wildlife … It talks about the adverse effects on Clermont’s tourism industry, the potential impact on the Blair Athol State Forest, and the impact of an access road to the mine.
“Where do we think this letter could have come from? Perhaps it was the member for Maiwar [Greens party’s Michael Berk]. Perhaps it was someone from the Greens. Perhaps it is from Bob Brown.”
The comments did not go unnoticed by Frieda Berry-Porter.
“That’s just ridiculous,” Ms Berry-Porter said.
“The vision of Clermont at last year’s Bob Brown convoy would surely reassure the Premier of our support for the coal industry.
The ABC contacted Huaxin Energy, but did not receive a response.