The landholders of a key nature reserve set to be decimated by the China First mine in the Galilee Basin have vowed to fight the development, despite admitting that the government has effectively removed their option of legal action.
Around half of the Bimblebox nature refuge, an 8,000ha sanctuary in central Queensland, will be wiped out by the Waratah Coal mine, which was approved by the environment minister, Greg Hunt, late last Friday.
Waratah Coal is a wholly owned subsidiary of Mineralogy, of which Clive Palmer is owner and chairman. He is also chairman of Waratah Coal.
Bimblebox – a woodland area used for species conservation projects and controlled cattle grazing – will be razed despite landholders having a signed agreement with the Queensland government to preserve the area since 2002.
Alexandra Mercer, assistant curator of the sanctuary, told Guardian Australia that landholders, as well as scientists and others who have studied the area, were “disappointed and upset” by Hunt’s decision.
“In light of the understanding of the importance of Bimblebox in an area where land clearing is extensive, it’s very disappointing for the environment minister to approve this mine,” she said.
“We thought there was some sort of mistake when we found out Clive Palmer had an exploration licence for the nature refuge but we communicated the importance to the minister. I wish he’d listened and engaged more with us.”
Mercer said an open cut mine will swallow up half of the refuge with the rest of the area threatened by underground, or long wall, mining.
“There will be significant subsidence. The level of the earth will drop by a couple of metres,” she said. “It’ll be devastating.”
Recent Coalition amendments to the EPBC Act, supported by Labor, mean community groups cannot legally challenge a development if the environment minister failed to consult expert advice. Mercer said this move is likely to hinder any attempt to launch a court case to stop the destruction of Bimblebox.
“A judicial review of the decision will be very difficult, but we will do what we can,” she said. “We can’t just protect something for 10 years and then just let it go.
“This region is 95% pastoral lease and will soon have mines covering it. We need estates like Bimblebox if we are to rehabilitate the area after mining.”
Work on the $6.4bn China First mine will start next year, with a 453km rail line connecting the mine to the coast, where coal will be shipped via the Abbot Point port. It’s estimated the 40m tonnes of coal mined a year will release 85.6m tonnes of CO2, with the mine requiring 10,000 megalitres of water a year from the local environment.
Hunt’s approval included a total of 54 conditions, with Waratah required to pay $100,000 a year for 10 years into a conservation fund. “Maximum disturbance limits” for nationally threatened species have also been set, as well as offsets for the habitat lost.
The endangered black throated finch, which has been spotted in Bimblebox but wasn’t found in a survey for the environmental assessment, will require 10,000ha found elsewhere, while the squatter pigeon will be required 6,000ha. The yakka skink, northern quoll and red goshawk will also be threatened by the project and have offset land attributed to them.
Louise Matthieson, campaigner at Greenpeace, said the offsets will do little to help the biodiversity damaged by the China First mine.
“Greg Hunt likes to brag about the number of conditions he imposes but most are just window dressing,” she told Guardian Australia. “Unless someone tells the finch where the offset land is, and helps it fly to the new patch of bush, the idea of it is nonsensical.
“Offsetting doesn’t replace what is being lost, it’s about buying yourself out of protecting the environment. There will be a net loss of biodiversity as a result of this mine.
“It’s a massive Christmas gift for Clive Palmer. Real questions have to be asked over what influence this will have with the Palmer United party in the Senate.”
Despite Waratah Coal’s own analysis showing the mine will result in a net loss of jobs from Queensland, the company’s managing director Nui Harris said the economy would benefit.
“The reality is the project will create jobs to a total of about 6,000 jobs all up – being the mine, the rail and the port,” Harris told the ABC.
“It won’t be taking jobs away from the rural community. It will be adding jobs to the rural community.”
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