Shenhua spokeswoman Melanie Layton says the land will return to farming after the 30-year life of the mines.

Gunnedah, whose previous heyday came during the 1950s wool boom, may be undergoing one of its biggest transformations since it was settled in 1856, says Adam Marshall, who stepped down as mayor in September. "We did have a mini coal boom in the early 1980s, but nothing on the scale which we're seeing now."

Coal mining has a long history in Australia, but never before has it encroached on such prime farmland as the Liverpool Plains, a 4,800-square-mile (12,400-square-kilometer) flatland bordered by mountain ridges and dotted with volcanic hills about 275 miles north of Sydney.

Shenhua Watermark, a subsidiary of state-owned China Shenhua Energy, the world's biggest coal mining company, spent 167 million Australian dollars (more than $170 million) to buy 43 farms covering 36,300 acres. Ex-mayor Marshall says sellers told him Shenhua paid several times market value.

George Clift, 83, who refused to sell, is upset that his cousin Tony did.

"You're supposed to hand it down to the next generation, so if you're not going to do that, you shouldn't have been handed the land in the first place," he says. "I'm very, very sad to see how everything's turning out for the next generation; we've seen the best of Australia and I think it's only going to deteriorate from here on."

Tony Clift says he believes the state would have forced him to allow mining anyway â¿¿ and probably for less compensation than Shenhua paid for the land. Mining companies can take landowners to court if the two sides can't agree on access to the land.

"Yeah, it causes some problems in the family. That's life," Tony Clift says. "I'd rather take the money and run now than watch my whole block get dug up."

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