Past Court Cases · Nature & the Reef

LTG seeks reasons for Blair Athol mining lease transfer

13 August, 2019

EDO Qld is acting for Lock the Gate Alliance Ltd (LTG) in the Supreme Court to obtain reasons for the Queensland Government’s decision to approve transfer of the Blair Athol mining lease in central Queensland.  LTG is concerned about the ability of junior miner Orion Mining to meet rehabilitation requirements on the site left by former operator Rio Tinto.

In late August 2017, EDO Qld filed a court application on behalf of LTG to compel the Queensland Minister for Natural Resources and Mines to provide a statement of reasons for granting an indicative approval under the Mineral Resources Act 1989 for transfer of the Blair Athol mining lease.

LTG had made several requests for formal reasons for the decision from the Department of Natural Resources and Mines.  However, they were continually rejected on the basis that LTG’s interests in the decision were inadequate to have standing to be a ‘person aggrieved’. 

LTG is seeking transparency in how the Government found that Orion has the resources to effectively operate and rehabilitate the Blair Athol site, and how the public interest was considered in the lease transfer. 

On 15 November 2017, the hearing commenced in Court but was adjourned part way through on request by the Minister’s lawyers. This was because they could not advise the Court on the status of any final approval. However, the hearing was completed on 5 December 2017 after the Minister filed evidence about the final approval decision. 

Note: This case is in addition to a separate action by Lock the Gate to also obtain reasons for the Government’s decision setting the financial assurance amount for the mine rehabilitation under the Environmental Protection Act 1994.

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On 22 February 2018, the Supreme Court refused Lock the Gate’s applications to obtain statements of reasons for both Queensland Government decisions relating to transfer of Blair Athol mine. 

Justice Bowskill QC essentially found that, despite being involved in numerous activities relating to the mine and rehabilitation law reform, LTG did not have the required interest in either decision that was beyond that of an ordinary member of the public.  As such, LTG did not have ‘standing’ to request the reasons.

The Court’s decisions (here and here) are disappointing as it means there is reduced transparency around the Government’s consideration and approval of allowing a small company to take on a mine with existing large rehabilitation requirements. 

Later in 2018, LTG applied to the Department of Natural Resources and Mines under the Right to Information Act 2009 for access to the documents that the Minister considers when making the decision to grant indicative approval for the transfer of the mining lease for the Blair Athol coal mine to Orion Mining.

When consulted, TerraCom objected to the release of certain documents claiming they were commercial in confidence.

However, the Department allowed access to these documents. TerraCom then appealed this to the Office of the Information Commissioner - where the Department's decision was affirmed, with the Office finding 'there is no basis under the RTI Act to refuse access to the information in issue' (see here).

TerraCom has now appealed this decision to the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal.

On Tuesday August 6 2019, EDO Qld solicitor Alison Rose represented the Lock the Gate Alliance at the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal and argued for the release of the remaining documents.

The hearing was adjourned to enable Terracom to change its position regarding release of a portion of the documents.

BACKGROUND

After some 30 years, the Blair Athol thermal coal mine, located in Central QLD, was mothballed by a Rio Tinto joint venture in 2012.  Significant rehabilitation issues remained on site. In mid-2016 Rio sold the mine for $1 to junior miner Orion Mining Pty Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of TerraCom Ltd. By selling the mine, Rio Tinto shifted its responsibility to rehabilitate the mine to Orion, which may not have sufficient resources to meet rehabilitation requirements – this is despite Rio giving Orion $79.6 million as part of the sale transfer. 

In 2014, a Queensland Audit Office (QAO) report confirmed the general inadequacy of rehabilitation undertaken by mining companies in Queensland to date, and the inadequate regulation of rehabilitation obligations by the Government.  QAO has estimated that the State has some estimated 15,000 abandoned mines that could cost up to $1 billion if they all were to be rehabilitated.

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