A bid to dig a coalmine on some of the last remaining habitat of an endangered wallaby near a central Queensland town called Dingo has been withdrawn.
But the mood among neighbor landowners who opposed the Walton Coal proposal is far from celebratory.
Plans for a metallurgical coalmine, now known as Gemini, on neighboring land have been resurrected and authorities are allowing the application for a mining lease to go ahead without an environmental impact statement (EIS).
A Dingo grazing family is challenging the decision to allow Gemini’s proponents, Magnetic South, to proceed without an EIS process in the state’s land court.
And locals fear it will not be the last proposal for a coalmine in the area.
Among them is the semi-retired fitter, turner, welder and grazier Trevor Naughton.
At 66, Naughton is an unlikely champion for the bridled nail-tail wallaby – a small and curiously ornamented marsupial thought to be extinct until the 1970s, when it was rediscovered by a fencing contractor who had seen its picture in a Woman’s Day magazine.
“I’ve worked on just about every coal-fired power station in Queensland, plus a few,” Naughton says.
But Naughton has given over a 300 hectare strip of his 2,023 hectare property to form a reserve linking Walton state forest with Taunton national park. The national park was established after the rediscovery of the wallaby, specifically to protect the last remaining population of a species that was once widespread throughout inland eastern Australia.
The reserve on Naughton’s property is even called Wallaby Lane.
The ecologist Greg Holland, who is leading efforts to re-establish other populations of the wallaby, says such wildlife corridors can play a critical role in allowing animals to move throughout a landscape.
Because while the rediscovery of a species driven to extinction – in a large part by habitat destruction – provides “a second chance”, having a single population carries with it a “very strong risk” of disasters such as wildfire, drought or disease.
“You can have one event like that take place and the whole species is gone,” he says.
Wallaby Lane was to be severed under the Walton mine proposal. Some of Naughton’s land, including the section of wildlife corridor which connects to the national park, was to be dug up and used for spoil dump.
So Naughton was pleased to learn this week that the Walton bid had been withdrawn by its proponents, Aquila Resources.
Not that the news will alleviate the uncertainty which has clouded his dreams for almost two decades.
Naughton bought his property in 1991 with the ambition to build a forever home and run cattle. Twenty-one years later he is still living in a donga and agists others’ livestock on his paddocks. Because not long after Naughton bought his land, plans to mine it first surfaced. Under various guises, those plans have been floating ever since.
So while Naughton sunk bores and built fences, he’s never got around to building that home.
“It’d break my heart seeing the damn thing bulldozed,” he says.
Neighbors Allan and Jane Vaughan invested even more in their 200-hectare organic beef farm over the last 37 years.
In addition to about 200 head of cattle they run a thriving bush camp and short-term accommodation that can house up to 200 people, mainly workers who maintain the train lines and council roads and miners.
The Vaughans fear the heavy metals kicked up by the coal dust from the Gemini mine will jeopardise their organic status, as well as their own health. While the mines and associated train lines and trucking routes that would border home and camps would stop tourists visiting their land.
“Instead of looking out over trees and landscape they’ll be looking out over big coalmines,” Allan Vaughan says.
Other landholders who objected to Magnetic South’s bid to develop the Gemini mine sold up to the company, but the Vaughans held out. Now they are challenging the mine’s approval at the land court, with a directions hearing set for this week.
The graziers question why the Department of Environment and Science does not require an EIS from Magnetic South despite the fact a previous proposal for a smaller mine on the same land did.
The department said the previous Dingo West bid, proposed in 2011, was “substantially different to the Gemini proposal”, but did not elaborate.
“The independent regulator has determined the Gemini project does not trigger an EIS, but is required to hold an environmental authority, which requires a rigorous environmental assessment, including any impacts to flora and fauna in the area,” the department said.
“This includes an opportunity for members of the public to make public submissions about the proposal.”
Gemini has been approached for comment.
One possibility is that the Gemini mine did not hit the EIS trigger of 2m tons a year of coal extraction – coming in slightly below that with a projected 1.9m tons a year.
And just as they saw what is now Gemini abandoned before being taken up by a new proponent with less onerous environmental oversight, the Vaughans fear the Walton site could be similarly resurrected.
“Then we’d be in the middle of two coalmines, which isn’t good if you want to be organic,” Allan Vaughan says.
The department confirmed to the Guardian that if another proponent tried to resurrect the Walton Coal project, a new terms of reference for an EIS would need to be made.