Removed one by one as Australia pursues coal

ACKLAND,
Australia – Glenn Beutel recalled that the phone call came, as it happened,
just before the first anniversary of his mother’s funeral. A representative of
the coal mining company New Hope Coal, which was seeking to expand its
operations, asked whether he could drop by.

The
next day, he listened to Beutel’s concerns about increased mining before
turning to the visit’s real purpose. Was Beutel interested in selling his
property?

“I
told him it was part of my soul,” Beutel, 57, said softly. “He ran away.”

But
over the next five years, officials of New Hope Coal would meet with Beutel’s
neighbours, buying up their homes and land one by one. Some sold happily;
others said they felt coerced. Either way, Beutel now finds himself the last
homeowner here, this 120-year-old town vanishing rapidly around him, huge
deposits of coal lying under him and lawyers for the coal company threatening
to come down on him.

Even
as Asian demand for Australia’s resources keeps surging, the fate of this small
town has become a catalyst for pent-up anger over the coal industry’s push into
populated and farming areas. It has also set off a larger debate in Australia,
the world’s biggest exporter of coal, about mining’s costs and benefits to the
country.

The
Australian government last month proposed an overhaul of the taxes on
resources, arguing that mining companies benefited disproportionately during
the past decade’s commodities boom. The proposal, which would replace mining
royalties paid to the government with a 40 percent “super profits” tax on
corporate income above a still unspecified threshold, has drawn a fierce
response from mining companies.

The
companies’ criticism helped sink the approval ratings of Prime Minister Kevin
Rudd, who was forced to resign by his own party. His successor, Julia Gillard,
has backed the tax but hinted at a compromise with mining officials, whose
advertising campaign convinced many voters that the tax would kill jobs and
hurt the economy.

The
tax, mining companies have argued, would make Australia’s resource sectors less
competitive and should not be applied to projects that were started under the
royalty system. Several have threatened to terminate plans for new projects.

“Do
projects get killed off as a result of the design?” asked Michael Roche, chief
executive of the Queensland Resources Council, the umbrella group for mining
companies based in the state of Queensland. “Because if they do, then the super
profits tax collects 40 percent of nothing.”

The
government has said that revenues from the new tax would create a more balanced
economy by lowering the overall corporate tax rate, helping small businesses,
increasing pensions and investing in infrastructure.

Supporters
of the tax, including farmers, say mining hurts other industries. By offering
higher wages, it makes labour scarcer and pricier for others; farmers fear that
new mines will pollute sources of water and destroy agricultural land.

Until
a few years ago, most of the coal mining in Queensland took place in the
sparsely populated north or centre of the state. But because demand from China,
and in the future, India, is expected to keep rising, companies are exploring
for coal reserves or drawing up plans to expand existing mining operations.

Drew Hutton, an environmentalist
who helped found the Green Party, said that after decades of indifference,
Australians were now starting to worry about coal’s effects on the environment
and their food supply. The fate of Ackland and Beutel, whose situation has
received a lot of coverage in the local news media, has also put a face on
opposition to King Coal, Hutton, 63, said.

“He’s a rather powerful symbol
because he’s so self-unassuming and uncomfortable in the spotlight,” he said of
Beutel.

Indeed,
Beutel said he was making no statement against the coal industry; he himself
had worked in gold mining and was opposed to the government’s proposed tax. His
was a “circumstantial stance.” He said he had become Ackland’s last homeowner
for the simple reason that he had always had trouble making decisions and was
still very attached to this place, which his mother had helped endow with
parks, a war memorial and other beautification projects.

In
2002, New Hope Coal began operations at an open pit mine a couple of miles
north of here with promises of prosperity, current and former residents said.

“Ackland
was going to grow, and we’d have doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs,” said
Merilyn Plant, who lives a few miles north of here, on a farm purchased by her
husband’s grandfather.

But by 2005, as it prepared to
expand, the company began buying up houses and land. The school was closed,
trees were felled, houses were demolished or moved to a lot outside town.
Looters appeared, carrying off the metal scraps and pipes in abandoned houses.

Last year, when New Hope Coal
sought a license from the state to expand once again – with an open-pit mine
right under this town – the last holdouts left. Since state government
officials have strongly backed New Hope Coal’s operations here, the remaining
few believe that it is only a matter of time before the company’s most recent
application is approved.

“They will get the mining lease,
let’s face it; it’s going to happen,” said Steve Turner, 61, an engineer, who
said he had felt intimidated into giving up his property. A few months ago,
Turner said he finally sold his property to the company for $195,000, about
$26,000 short of what he needed to resettle elsewhere. His lawyer had advised
him that Queensland’s land court, where such disputes are settled in this
state, was likely to give him less.

Officials at New Hope Coal
declined to be interviewed for this article. Roche of the Queensland Resources
Council, of which New Hope Coal is a member, defended the company’s dealings
with the townspeople.

“Now, there’s one resident left there,”
Roche said, adding: “You will always find a few individuals who grieve for the
way things were. I think you’ll find most people have moved on, got on with
life and have been well looked after by the company.” 

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