THE central Darling Downs community are no strangers to coal mining.
Since 1913 Acland has been mined, originally with underground shafts and later as an open cut facility.
It is an industry that is contentious, but necessary, and close to the hearts of many locals.
The New Hope Group commenced operations of the New Acland coal mine in 2002.
For the past eight years they have been rehabilitating mining land, in an attempt to make it viable for grazing cattle.
Since 2006 this has taken place via its stand-alone subsidiary business, Acland Pastoral Company.
The New Hope Group's New Acland coal mine. Click on the image to see a gallery of photos of the mine and its subsequent rehabilitation.
New Hope executive general manager for mining Jim Randell said they are happy with the advances made so far in rehabilitating the mined land to grazing status.
Mr Randell has worked in the mining industry for 44 years, the past five of which have been at New Hope.
He describes the mine as a tidy operation, and one that he is proud of.
The New Hope Group is Australian owned and operated and their controlling interest is Washington H Soul Pattinson.
It generally sits within the top five ASX listed companies based in Queensland.
About the mine
NEW Acland coal mine is situated on a 10,000-hectare property, with 1500ha being used for the mining process.
Each year the mine produces 4.8 million tonnes of coal, the majority of which is exported. However, 150,000 tonnes goes to the domestic market.
The active pit size is 275ha and as the mine expands from the front, the soil is used to fill it in from behind.
A point, Mr Randell said he wants everyone to have an understanding of.
“We are a thin seam mine, which means we mine very thin coal seams, which is different from the rest of the operations,” he said.
“The size of the hole that you see here today is the same size as it would have been eight to 10 years ago – that hole has effectively moved across the landscape,” he said.
“This is not simply just mining a great long strip and leaving it. This is a 275ha hole in the ground that moves forward and eventually it will all be recovered and rehabbed to at least grazing standard.”
In order to drought-proof the mine a 47km pipeline was installed from the Wetalla Wastewater Reclamation Facility, at Toowoomba. They also source water from the Oakey Reverse Osmosis plant.
The water is used in the coal washing and preparation plant.
Mr Randell said they often use less water than they are allocated and the remainder is allowed to flow downstream for producers to access.
They have access to 5500ML of water, and pay $10 million per year to the Toowoomba Regional Council, regardless of how much they use.
MOST mines conduct rehabilitation work on some level but Acland Pastoral Company aims to rehabilitate the land so that it is suitable for grazing.
At present they have 2100 head of mainly trade cattle but generally aim to run between 2500-3000 head. Once the cattle hit 450kg, they are sold to feedlots.
Acland Pastoral Company manager Ben Muirhead said the second year of the cattle trials had seen some refinements in the program.
“In the first year the weight gains for the cattle on the mined areas were slightly higher than the benchmark data for the local area,” he said.
“For this second round of cattle trials we have sourced the cattle from the same supplier, which ensures we are comparing the same breed, genetics and age for all beasts in the study.”
As reported in Queensland Country Life in January, the stage one results revealed the cattle grazing on rehabilitated mining land gained an average of 0.67kg per day, while the control group gained an average of 0.06kg per day.
Due to the discrepancy in results, benchmark data for the area was gathered; indicating cattle gain an average of 0.6kg per day.
“What the trial is trying to establish is if it is economically and sustainably viable to have cattle grazing on rehabilitated land after a mine’s gone through it,” Mr Muirhead said.
“What we need to do is prove its sustainability and so we are going to run this trial over five years and each year we are going to be looking at how we can fine tune it and expand on the methodology.
“It was always designed to be a five year trial so averages can be calculated.”
Outcross has been commissioned to conduct the trials.
They operate as a third-party project manager and engage all the consultants - including agronomists, soil scientists, veterinarians and statisticians.
Outcross director Tom Newsome said it was an exciting project to work on.
“We’re looking at both the performance of the cattle as well as the performance of the overall beef production,” he said.
“Rather than a one-off grazing period, they will actually be grazing that land for a minimum of five years. We do four grazing’s per year, which replicates a rotational grazing system.”
Improving on stage one, the 180 Angus cattle in the trial have been sourced from a single vendor, with one bloodline and are the same age.
There is an even split of steers and heifers and the cattle ran as a group for 12 months before entering the trial, to ensure they had the same diet.
After grazing, the cattle will be followed through the feedlot period.
At slaughter, carcase measurements and a liver biopsy to test for mining contaminants will be conducted.
EcoRich Grazing’s Col Paton said a key measure of the viability of the sites is the weight gain of cattle and the number of cattle they can carry per hectare.
“My role is to measure the pasture side of the trial, so I record the amounts of pasture on offer and the species composition of paddocks before each grazing,” he said.
“From that information I calculate the numbers of stock to go in each paddock and how long they should graze each paddock for.”
Mr Paton also collects intensive data on grass growth, quality relative to the soil, and rainfall in 10mx10m exclosures, where cattle are excluded from grazing.
University of Southern Queensland senior research fellow John Bennett said the soil program is structured to coincide with the pasture program.
“I’m assessing how its structure compares to pre-existing structure both a physical and a chemical sense,” he said.
“Also how the structural changes affect water movement and holding capacity of the soil and subsequently how all of these changes are effecting nutrient movement and uptake by plants.”
Dr Bennett said preliminary results have been encouraging and there are signs of the soil evolving.
“There is some significant darkening of the topsoil layer which is quite in keeping with a large organic matter breakdown,” he said.
“The plant roots are growing down into the interburden layer. The roots in the benchmark soils were between 80cm and 1.5 metres deep; in the rehabilitated soil we are seeing roots down to approximately 1 metre.
“The importance of all that is the interburden is a structural mass that we would expect to hold less water. The roots are growing down to this to access water and they are clearly able to.”
Mr Newsome said the trials are a unique angle on mining land rehabilitation.
“A lot of traditional measures are environmental – let’s not settle for the benchmark, let’s measure in terms of the ability in beef cattle production,” he said.
Expansion and opposition
THE mine is not without its critics however and the proposed New Acland Coal Mine Stage 3 Project has come under fire.
In March 2012 the state government rejected New Acland Coal Mine Stage 3 Project.
The company has since revised and resubmitted its Environmental Impact Statement.
Changes include relocating the Jondaryan Rail Loading Facility and not mining through Lagoon Creek.
A decision from the Queensland government coordinator general is expected to be made in the coming months.
Oakey beef producer and veterinarian Nicki Laws’ property is 20 kilometres south east of Acland.
Dr Laws is on the executive of the Oakey Coal Action Alliance said generally the public were cynical and described the land rehab as a showpiece.
“It was a promise by the LNP not to allow it [the expansion] when they were elected in March 2012 but they broke that promise and they allowed a modified program to go through,” she said.
“Our biggest concerns are the 8.9GL of water per annum use which is going to deplete the local aquifers and the companies own figures say that for 7km around the mine there will be a bore water draw down of 20-30 metres.
“Why in a state where water is so crucial, should we allow these water wasting facilities to even be considered?”
In December 2013, public policy think tank The Australia Institute released a report titled Biting the Land that Feeds You.
The report examines the socio-economic effects of the mine expansion and argues that models used by New Hope to predict its impact on agriculture and local businesses are flawed.
Stop Brisbane Coal Trains spokesman John Gordon said they had long considered the New Acland Stage 3 Expansion (EIS) application process a total farce.
“This so-called expansion 'application' was always a joke,” Mr Gordon said.
“The EIS Process was simply a case of ticking political and public boxes.”
If stage 3 is not approved, operations at New Acland will end in 2018 and 300 employees will be out of a job.
Approval of stage 3 would extend the lifespan of the mine until 2029.
Mr Randell said they are expecting to be challenged in the Land Court.
Many people are getting nervous, he said, as the deadline is fast approaching.