Waratah Coal, a Clive Palmer entity, has applied for a mining lease and environmental authority approval to build a coalmine in the Galilee Basin in Queensland, Australia. The project, which has been in discussions for years under the name “China First”, has now been renamed “The Galilee Coal Project” amid Palmer’s anti-China and nationalist ‘Australia First’ rhetoric.
Federal environmental approval was already granted for the project in late 2013, but the project never took off, as in October 2015 Palmer’s Queensland Nickel, a nickel refinery in Townsville, northern Queensland, became insolvent, dragging Palmer into a long legal battle. Palmer has also spent most of 2018 on a fruitless political campaign, the most expensive in Australian history, gaining not a single seat in senate of parliament.
Now it seems Mr Palmer is relaunching the project; on October 4th, 2019, Queensland’s coal assessment hub announced an application renewal request was submitted by Waratah Coal for the Galilee Basin coal mine and that Australians can comment on the proposal and lodge objections by December 2nd.
The Guardian reports that Waratah Coal plans to build two open-cut pits, four underground mines – removing a total of 40m tonnes a year – and a 453km railway linking the project to the Adani-owned Abbot Point coal terminal near Bowen. This makes China First/The Galilee Coal Project 4 times bigger than Adani’s much disputed Carmichael Mine.
Many groups have so far voiced their criticism and concerns, calling the federal government and the Queensland government to deny Palmer’s applications.
Environmental activist movement Lock the Gate’s coordinator Carmel Flint said it was unclear whether Waratah Coal had done additional work on water impacts, which had been required by the Queensland coordinator general; “It’s potentially a quick process to get a mining lease or environmental authority. I’d imagine people will object to this. There will be water impacts, so I imagine there will be a lot of concerns.” Lock the Gate Alliance also says the project will destroy grazing land and the Bimblebox Nature Refuge.
Activists also mention Palmer’s dubious past when it comes to environmental care; both in 2009 and 2011 Queensland Nickel discharged nitrate-laden water into the Great Barrier Reef, releasing 516 tonnes of toxic waste water into the Reef. In June 2012, Queensland Nickel released waste water continuously for three months, “at least 100 times the allowed maximum level as well as heavy metals and other contaminants”. In 2018 Palmer’s mothballed refinery was also deemed responsible for a massive oil spill near Mount Low Parkway. More recently, Palmer filed a proposal to mine a conservation area for endangered finch, despite public outcry.
Another group opposes the project for vastly different reasons; representatives of Queensland Nickel’s 800 ex-workers told reporters that Queensland Nickel’s collapse should pose as a red flag for Australian officials and for the public. The Yabulu nickel refinery went into liquidation in late 2015, just 6 years after Palmer purchased it from BHP, and Queenslanders demand that no new permits be granted to Palmer before he pays compensations and entitlements to workers, creditors and the state.
Special-purpose liquidators have already clawed $100m from Palmer and general-purpose liquidators are still chasing him for another $100m in court. The court has so far heard that Palmer traded while insolvent, falsified notebooks, emailed his executives instructions from an alias to trick regulators into thinking he was not acting as a shadow director and made cash transfers to his other companies, to his then-political party PUP and to family members and suspected-concubines in Kyrgyzstan.
Waratah Coal has also been named during the trial – Mr Palmer’s wife, Anna Palmer, reportedly made a security agreement between Palmer’s company Waratah Coal and QNI, in which mining tenements in the Galilee Basin were put up as security worth $135m. Expert witness Graham Gibson QS told the court that this was done intentionally by Palmer when he realized QNI was going to collapse as a means to secure money ahead of workers and creditors, as he knew the refinery would soon go into liquidation and he would lose control over company funds.
Mr Gibson told the court that “there was no commercial benefit in QNI acquiring the tenements as the coal project was worthless. There was no way you could describe the mining assets as liquid assets – they were anything but.” This is because the Waratah Coal tenements were exploration permits, not a mining lease, and there was no operating mine. Waratah Coal was later valued at 1$.
At this moment, Clive Palmer still owes millions of dollars to the Port of Townsville, to tax authorities and to the State of Queensland, which compensated sacked workers close to $70m on Palmer’s behalf.
Workers also raised concerns over maintenance violations and breaches of safety laws in the refinery, which official reports claim were due to mass layoffs by Mr Palmer. The report, obtained under the Right to Information, also shows that Palmer halved BHP’s repairs and maintenance budget, making employees fear for their safety. Former maintenance engineer Jason Townsend said he quit his job in 2014 because he was worried the refinery was becoming more dangerous.
“I’d frequently do site inspections of several areas of the plant, and the observation of a lot of corrosion leakages, and it was all quite commonplace for that to occur and it never sat right with me,” Mr Townsend said. “The list just kept getting bigger. That was my greatest concern. Maintenance issues kept piling up.”
Officials also claim Palmer and his management failed to act on warnings and were “grossly inadequate”. Some wonder if this track record isn’t sufficient cause to believe Clive Palmer should not be allowed to own or manage mining project in Queensland again.
Luckily, there is considerable significance to public objections during the approval process.
A Department of Natural Resources, Mines and Energy spokesman said granting a mining lease and Environmental Authority was an application-based process that invited public input before being subjected to rigorous technical assessment.
“Community, landholders and the general public have the opportunity to lodge an objection regarding the mining lease or draft Environmental Authority online or in writing via email,” the spokesman said. “If objections are received, the matter is referred to the independent Land Court of Queensland before any decisions to grant or reject the application are made.”