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A man and woman, both in blue shirts, look out over a veranda into paddocks.
Bronny and Paul McLellan’s property backs on to the Dawson River, and the proposed mine site is about 1 kilometre from their house.(ABC Capricornia: Rachel McGhee)

A rural town in Queensland’s coal country is fighting the development of a US-owned mine it says will destroy thousands of hectares of prime agricultural land and pollute a major river system.

Key points:

  • Community members oppose the location of the proposed Baralaba South Mine in central Queensland
  • The mine will be built on prime agricultural land and a flood plain, which was under water in 2010–11
  • There is concern the proposed mine will contaminate underground water and the nearby Dawson River, which supplies water to three towns

US insurance giant Liberty Mutual plans to build a coal mine 8 kilometres south of Baralaba, about 120km south-west of Rockhampton, and 500 metres from the Dawson River.

The mining lease for the mine covers a 2,214-hectare stretch of land on a major flood plain, of which half is on what the Queensland Government has zoned as strategic cropping land.

At full production, the Baralaba South Mine project would mine up to 6 million tonnes per year of run-of-mine coal to produce up to 3.5Mt/yr of pulverised coal injection and thermal coal product for up to 40 years.

Landowners in the area say this will be catastrophic come the next major flooding event, despite the mine’s plan to build levee banks.

Aerial shot of flood waters across a plain and a small mountain in the distance
The proposed site of the Baralaba South mine was underwater during the 2010–11 floods.(Supplied)

Less than a kilometre from the proposed mine is Bronny and Paul McLellan’s property — prime agricultural land that backs on to the Dawson River.

They said the levee banks would turn smaller floods into major floods.

“It’s not just low water, it’s dangerously high current flowing water … it will be massive.”

In 2010 the couple were impacted by the worst flood the region had ever seen, and the water was so high cattle were floating on the tops of the McLellans’ lychee trees before being taken to safety.

“We can handle a flood every 50 years, or 100 years, that’s nature. But we can’t handle a flood every few years,” Ms McLellan said.

“I couldn’t go through that one again.”

‘You can’t eat coal’: Former miner opposed to mine

Mr McLellan has spent more than 20 years in mining and, although he supported the industry, he opposed this mine’s location.

Liberty Mutual also operates Baralaba North mine, 5km north of Baralaba.

A man and woman, both in blue shirts, walk side by side in a lychee orchard.
Bronny and Paul McLellan say if the mine goes ahead, small floods will become major floods for them.(ABC Capricornia: Rachel McGhee)

“Keep it going in the right place, nothing wrong with it,” Mr McLellan said.

“But over here, it’s just a no brainer.”

Mr McLellan said the proposed project made no sense for the community, and instead of bringing jobs it would waste precious agricultural land.

“You can’t eat coal,” he said.

The Baralaba community has a population of about 300 people, mostly farmers and miners who are employed at numerous mines in the region.

A recent survey conducted by community group Save the Dawson found 97 per cent of residents were against the South Baralaba coal project.

Local grazier and group spokesperson Brett Coombe said the survey received 297 responses, which included all the landholders within 20 to 40km of Baralaba.

A man rides a red quad bike in a paddock with a dog on the back.
Brett Coombe says the proposed mine will be built on prime agricultural land and will pollute the nearby Dawson River system.(ABC Capricornia: Rachel McGhee)

“There are town people, all the rural people, and there are local landholders employed in the mine and they probably voted yes, but the majority were against the mine,” Mr Coombe said.

He said more than 99 per cent supported the protection of prime agricultural land.

Mr Coombe said the land would never be the same, even after rehabilitation, and he was concerned about water contamination.

“They’re going to put a wash plant in, they’re going to put in a tailings dam, we know there will be leeching because we know what this country is like,” he said.

“All that’s under there, close to the river, is sand and it will leech into the water source.”

A river flowing through a country town
The Dawson River begins in the Carnarvon Ranges and flows through several central Queensland towns, including Baralaba.(ABC Capricornia: Rachel McGhee)

Mr Coombe said three towns — Baralaba, Woorabinda and Duaringa — all drew their water supply from the Baralaba weir, and would be impacted by potential contamination.

There were also concerns that a levee bank would not hold during a flood.

“In the last flood, the mine wall [at North Baralaba Mine] busted and we had contamination to the water supply, and I guess that can happen again,” he said.

‘Empty promises’

A half-hour drive from Baralaba is the Indigenous community of Woorabinda, which has a population of about 1,000 people.

Community member Douglas Graham has been following the proposed mine closely.

Mr Graham said the Dawson River was part of a large catchment area that flowed to the coast and the Great Barrier Reef.

Mr Graham said the mine could also impact the town’s local water supply, which uses about 200 megalitres a year.

“We have some bores here but most of our water comes through a pipeline from Baralaba and it’s pumped from the Dawson River,” he said.

A man with an impressive beard stands in front of a dry, sandy creek bed and gestures
The Dawson River feeds into Mimosa Creek in Woorabinda, and Douglas Graham says in a good season this is full of water and the community’s focal point.(ABC Capricornia: Rachel McGhee)

The mine plans to use 900 megalitres a year, and Mr Graham said it could have a further impact on how much water flowed into its tributaries — particularly during a dry season.

One of these is Mimosa Creek, which runs through the township.

“It’s a very important waterway, especially for us on that side — the Yiman and the Wulli Wulli groups and some of the Ghangalu people as well,” Mr Graham said.

“Our Dreaming, our languages — we’re connected that way.”

Asked whether there was any support in the community in terms of jobs, Mr Graham said there was none from the people he had spoken to.

“We’ve seen that over and over again — it’s empty promises,” he said.

Some support

Grant Becker runs a book exchange in the main street of Baralaba and has spent 30 years in the mining industry.

He sat on the fence on the issue.

“As long as they follow legislation, fill in what they dig out and return the land to its natural formation without leaving and overly suggestive bump after their 40 or so years of mining, then I haven’t got a problem,” Mr Becker said.

He said he had reservations whether this would happen.

Man with beard sits at a bench outside a pub and looks away from the camera
Grant Becker says he doesn’t have a problem with the proposed mine as long as it follows legislation.(ABC Capricornia)

“But I’m for it because of what it will do for the community,” he said.

Mr Becker had doubts, but he said only time would tell.

The ABC approached Baralaba South Coal and put forward the community concerns.

A spokesperson said it would not comment until it submitted its environmental and social assessments to the government early next year, and would then share key findings with its neighbours and other stakeholders for more input.

“As such, it is not appropriate to provide public comments on the specifics of the assessments before they are discussed with direct stakeholders,” they said.