Pensioner in the firing line as coal miner seeks costs in drawn-out legal saga

Toowoomba 4350

Queensland miner New Acland Coal is considering seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars in court costs from a landholder group led by an 84-year-old pensioner, ahead of a possible High Court appeal.

Key points

  • Coal mine seeks court costs from members of a landholder group
  • New Acland Coal’s legal costs are understood to be over half a million dollars
  • The future of the legal battle depends on whether the High Court will hear an appeal

Aileen Harrison is the president of a landholder group known as the Oakey Coal Action Alliance (OCAA), who, since 2015, has been locked in a lengthy legal battle against plans to expand the New Acland Coal mine, 180 kilometres west of Brisbane.

The group’s primary concerns centre on what it says is the irreversible impact of the mine on groundwater and prime agricultural land.

In late 2019, lawyers for the New Hope Group-owned New Acland Coal Pty, sent letters to Ms Harrison and the treasurer of OCAA, outlining their client’s intention to seek legal costs.

“Well, I was a little bit astonished to think that it had come, and yes, I was stressed for a while,” OCCA President Aileen Harrison said

“Then after a couple of hours of thinking about it, I thought, well, they’re only trying to harass me again, which they’ve done to me for about 16 years.”


New Acland Coal first applied to expand their mine in 2007, and recently had to cut 150 workers. (Supplied: Lock The Gate)

OCAA was ordered to pay costs to New Acland Coal (NAC) by the Court of Appeal in November 2019, when it dismissed their appeal, finding a previous Land Court decision was affected by apprehended bias by the presiding Member.

The outstanding costs encompass an appeal and cross-appeal, as well as a previous Supreme Court hearing by Justice Helen Bowskill which the ABC understands will be well over half a million dollars.

Both Ms Harrison and OCAA’s treasurer are pensioners, and if enforced, the action would bankrupt them both.

“They brought three top barristers, [and] they need more money, well why is that our fault?” Ms Harrison said.


The letter received by Aileen Harrison. (Supplied: Aileen Harrison)

OCAA is seeking leave to appeal the High Court. They say the 2019 Court of Appeal decision casts doubt over the whole case and therefore needs to be reheard in the Land Court.

NAC’s lawyers claim that the Oakey Coal Action Alliance, an incorporated entity has no assets.

If mining company can prove OCAA is insolvent, that would affect OCAA’s ability to have their case heard in the High Court.

“I think they may be worried about us getting to the High Court,” Ms Harrison said.

Real cost is job losses, says miner

Ben Armitage, chief development officer of the New Hope Group, owner of the New Acland Coal mine, said members of OCAA bore responsibility.

“We do have a legal right to recoup those costs, and what we want to know from those office bearers is … how they’re going to do that for us,” he said.

“Taking on a battle like this costs a lot of money, but the real cost comes with 150 people that have lost a job because of this.”

Stage one of the New Acland Coal mine began in 2002, and in 2007 they first applied for their stage three expansion.

In 2012 the Newman state government pulled support for stage 3 because of its impact on prime agricultural land.

A revised proposal was put forward in 2014, and was recommended for approval by the Queensland Coordinator-General.


Workers from New Acland mine protesting outside Queensland’s Parliament in 2016 in support of the mine. (ABC News: Alyssa Betts)

The coal project became subject to an objections hearing in the Land Court, with the main objector being the Oakey Coal Action Alliance.

After 12 years waiting for approval and with coal reserves fading, NAC was forced to cut 150 jobs in September 2019.

If the mining approval and associated groundwater licence are not approved by October 2020, the remaining 150 jobs will be cut and the mine will go into care and maintenance.

“These people are using public money to campaign with seemingly no consequence,” Mr Armitage said.


Farmers around the New Acland coal mine have been fighting plans to expand the mine since since 2015. (ABC Southern Queensland: Nathan Morris)

Mr Armitage was also critical of the state Labor Government, who he said had been stalling on making a decision during the drawn out legal saga.

“The Government’s able to say, ‘oh well while there’s court action, we’re actually not going to do anything,” he said.

“We just see it as a delay tactic, another reason to try and stifle this project.”

In 2019 the New Hope Group recorded a record profit of $384 million.


Aileen Harrison and her daughter sold their old property to the owners of the New Acland Coal mine because of dust and noise from the operation. (ABC Southern Queensland: Nathan Morris)

Thinking of grandchildren

Last year the ABC revealed that the Adani had engaged their lawyers to employ an aggressive ‘attack dog’ strategy to silence critics and bankrupt unsuccessful court opponents.

OCCA secretary Paul King said the situation they face was no different.

“They’re attacking old ladies, it’s vexatious, it’s designed to intimidate people that want nobody to object to anything,” he said.

For Aileen Harrison, she said her time on the land is nearly up — her concerns around the New Acland Coal Mine’s impact on groundwater are on behalf of her grandchildren, and the generations that follow.

“What happens for 300 years plus when they’ve taken all that water,” Ms Harrison said.