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Toxic brew: Minister playing with fire as opposition grows for Bundaberg mine

Statewide

In a week when Australians were revealed to be demanding more action on climate change, residents in Bundaberg fear forces are marshalling in secret to build a coal mine on the doorstep of a beachside community. Brad Cooper investigates

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They are also demanding to know where their most high-profile political representative, Keith Pitt, stands on the controversial proposal.

Sitting with the Nationals in Federal Parliament, the Member for Hinkler and Resources Minister in the Morrison Government, is an outspoken supporter of the mineral resources industry.

He is a fierce advocate of coal, but also endorses arguments entertaining uranium extraction to fire up a nascent nuclear-powered Australian economy.

The position would seem to be at odds with the Australian public’s views, according to an Australian Conservation Foundation survey released on Monday showing a majority in every Australian federal electorate wants more action on climate change from their political leaders.

Despite his wider area of portfolio responsibility on the national stage, Pitt could have a problem currently pulsating in his back yard, with his own electorate adjacent to the proposed coking-coal mine site still under investigation.

Located just eight kilometres from the centre of Bundaberg, and less than five kilometres off the coast, is a massive swathe of farmland and beachfront properties under the shadow of a Mineral Development Licence Application (MDLA).

The paperwork is in front of Queensland Resources Minister Scott Stewart, whose approval would see more intensive activity on the site, including high-impact drilling, seismic surveying and the movement of large machinery.

Opposition to the mine has been gathering momentum since efforts to probe the site further for its extractive potential was first proposed by WA’s Fox Resources in late 2019.

In laboratory testing results seen by InQueensland, Fox has identified the site as rich in coking coal of “outstanding quality”, earmarking it as a key deposit of what is otherwise known as metallurgical coal for the manufacture of steel.

Within months of the miner applying for further exploration licences, more than 4000 locals voiced their objection to Stewart via a petition.

Community and green groups such as Lock the Gate are outraged, while farm groups such as Bundaberg Fruit and Vegetable Growers and the local Canegrowers branch also remain opposed.

Bundaberg Regional Council Mayor Jack Dempsey is continuing his vocal campaign to shut down the proposal, telling InQueensland this week:

“We believe that coal mining is not an appropriate activity on prime agricultural land and isn’t compatible with the Bundaberg Region’s reputation as the food bowl of Australia.”

Dempsey, who is a former minister in the one-term Newman LNP State Government of 2012-2015, last year drew criticism and calls of hypocrisy from his erstwhile Labor adversaries for his anti-mining position, as reported in this InQueensland story.

By April this year, Labor, at least locally, had changed tack, with ALP Member for Bundaberg Tom Smith posting on Facebook that he was directly petitioning Stewart to reject the mine.

Smith’s LNP counterpart in the neighbouring electorate of Burnett, Stephen Bennett, followed in June with his opposition, claiming the mine would “wreak havoc on the region that is home to high value small crops, macadamia farms and areas of environmental significance”.

Part of the tenure is on land belonging to Queensland Farmers Federation president Allan Dingle, who is said to be unhappy at the prospect of losing a long-held family agricultural enterprise to an open-cut coal mine.

The site is in the federal electorate of Flynn, which will be contested by the LNP’s current state Member for Callide Colin Boyce and Gladstone Mayor Matt Burnett for the ALP, in the wake of long-serving LNP stalwart Ken O’Dowd’s decision to retire.

All three men have kept relatively quiet on the issue, although Burnett has been a strong advocate for his home-city’s bid to be a key manufacturer of ‘green’ hydrogen – critical to the manufacture of green steel which doesn’t require coking-coal.

With green steel manufacture accelerating overseas, well-ahead of forecasts, the global market may well yet decide the future viability of coking-coal extraction.

But facing the reality that no resource sector application to operate on agricultural land has been refused since planning legislation was changed five years ago, locals fearing a new open-cut mine on Queensland’s cane-growing coast – where ‘sugar seats’ are always crucial to winning federal elections – are looking for powerful allies.

According to local community champion Alan Corbett, a one-time member of the NSW State Parliament who these days lives in retirement at Moore Park Beach, gaining Pitt’s position on the mine has weighted significance.

“With a federal election coming up we want to know where all of our federal candidates and incumbents stand on this issue,” Corbett said.

“While at the moment it’s in the hands of the State Government, I know that politicians talk to other politicians and Keith Pitt as the Resources and Water Minister has a lot of power and influence.”

But Pitt has deflected questions on where he stands, telling InQueensland:

“The future of this project, which is not in my electorate, is solely a matter for the Queensland State Government.”

Technically, Pitt is correct. Carriage of the application to move from exploration to operation rests with the State Government, but final hurdles via federal approval under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 will need to be cleared in the event the submission moves forward.

Stewart’s office has confirmed the application is still being assessed, with specific environmental and native title requirements under consideration.

“It’s important to highlight this type of licence does not authorise mining at the site,” Stewart said.

Corbett and his Moore Park Beach action group are convinced favourable discussions toward the proposal are happening at a higher level and via unofficial channels.

They are equally convinced that Pitt has met with Fox Resources when top executives from the company were in Bundaberg in late June meeting with groups such as the Bundaberg Chamber of Commerce and Bundaberg Tourism.

“You would think, given that they were in his region, Fox Resources would have met with the federal Resources Minister, but he (Pitt) refuses to give an answer on this,” Corbett said.

Corbett has submitted a freedom of information request to obtain a copy of Pitt’s diary. He will be informed of the outcome on September 10.

Pitt has told InQueensland that the assertions of his direct involvement in the proposal are false.

“I have never met with the proponent to discuss the project,” he said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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