IN Jondaryan, a small township on the Darling Downs in Queensland, they have been building a mountain of coal for the past 10 years. It is hauled from New Hope Mine at Acland and dumped near the township before being loaded on trains heading to the coast.
The mountain of coal is now as big as the Sydney Opera House and so high it is actually illegal. As far as the Queensland government and the Toowoomba Regional Council are concerned, however, it also happens to be untouchable; a sacred site.
When the east wind blows, the coal dust blasts everything in its path — houses, gardens, motor vehicles — and turns them greasy black. Jondaryan has been transformed from the lazy rhythms of a country town to a life of lingering coughs behind closed doors and windows.
These are a decent people who still have faith in democracy. They write humble letters about the pollution to New Hope Coal, the council and state and federal governments. They plead for someone to help them, but nothing ever happens. New Hope Coal continues to deal with the monitoring of air quality, and the locals say the company tests only on days when the wind is still.
Welcome to Queensland, the place where the “fair go” has gone AWOL and governments, councils and their cronies collude to make mine-owners richer, and the poor are left to fend for themselves.
The plight of Jondaryan and its people has become a metaphor for the deliberate destruction of the Darling Downs by state and federal governments and their lapdogs at the Toowoomba Regional Council.
For them, farmers and communities have become inconsequential in the rush for coal and gas royalties and, with a brand of bureaucratic bullying borrowed from the Soviets, farmers have seen their sovereignty stripped while they are driven off their land.
There are mining permits across more than 90 per cent of the Darling Downs, including dozens of schools, towns and communities, and the region is set to see up to 30 new open-cut coal mines.
There are permits across the richest soils this side of the Ganges Delta and permits over leafy Toowoomba suburbs whose residents have no idea of their fate because the Toowoomba Regional Council has refused to stand up and fight for its citizens.
The looming apocalypse of coal-seam gas has seen a similar explosion of permits granted over nearly every inch of the Darling Downs. CSG companies are buying up prime farms to dump their toxic waste water and Drew Hutton, leader of the Lock the Gate campaign, has warned the region will resemble a pin cushion studded with gas wells, and with it the disastrous destruction of its water supply.
Toowoomba Regional Council, with the state government and local developer Denis Wagner, plans to turn Wellcamp Downs, a sprawling grain farm 10 minutes from the centre of the CBD, into the biggest, noxious and dangerous heavy industrial estate seen in regional Australia. They intend to lure industries other cities and communities don’t want and give them a home in the Garden City.
There have been no environmental studies done and no buffer zones provided to protect farmers and families from the toxic pollutants set to run from the site. It is also home to a large koala colony and is crossed by a creek that runs into the Murray-Darling. Even worse, when the westerly wind blows across the city in winter, it will carry noxious factory emissions straight into rainwater tanks.
The Darling Downs has become the flashpoint for a movement to save the nation’s richest farmland from coalmining, coal-seam gas and equally destructive industries. It has hit a national nerve and attracted substantial support across the nation.
After 20 years of the same government in Queensland, it would seem that democracy rode out of town and the Three Amigos — Bullying, Secrecy and Cronyism — turned up instead. They will continue to call the shots as long as the Queensland media behaves like a poodle and not as a true watchdog of democracy.
At a recent anti-mining protest in Toowoomba, the state government sent up to 15 special security squad policemen to face 150 weary old farmers, a couple of noisy girls and a few skinny youths. It was almost amusing until a couple of elderly women decided to hand out free sample bags of coal dust to Mining Expo visitors. They were chicken-winged and frogmarched out by two burly officers and, when one of the women asked an officer why he needed to hurt her, he apologised and explained that the police were simply following instructions to “show extreme force against left-wing activists”.
It’s still not over. The state government is set to decimate 7000ha of fertile farmland when it rubber-stamps stage three of the Acland mine, enabling New Hope Coal to more than double its production from four million tonnes to 10 million tonnes a year for the next 20 years.
There are more bad days to come. New Hope Coal and the Toowoomba Regional Council plan to steal the sacred Acland War Memorial from the arms of its community, and they still have to figure out a way to remove local hero Glen Beutel, who refuses to allow his town to disappear under the bulldozers.
The Wrath of the Downs has become the inspiration for similar protest movements right across Australia. “For every angry person I have met, there is now a protest group holding a meeting somewhere,” Hutton says. “There are now a thousand protest groups in a thousand communities all doing exactly the same thing. And I can promise you that when they finally come together and stand as one, this movement will look like nothing this nation has ever seen.”