Communities face down plans to expand Britain’s last coal mines
‘It was cruel what we went through’. As the UK weighs whether to allow its ailing mines to stumble on, community activists ask when enough is enough?
In 2015, the UK government promised to phase out coal power. In April this year, the country had its first coal power-free day since the industrial revolution. Last month, climate minister Claire Perry stood with 20 of her international counterparts and promised to “power past coal”.
The British coal industry is dead, isn’t it?
In the UK, there is the impression that the streams of miners leaving the pits like grubby-faced lords of the underworld are a thing of the past. That the pickets, police, projectiles and – ultimately – poverty, are the stuff of history textbooks. And that the trucks, noise, dust, and heaps of blackened spoil exist only in isolated pockets of the isle… and not for much longer.
Yet, in two communites hundreds of miles apart, residents are confronted with a very different picture.
In Wales’ lush green valleys, there is electrician Eddy Blanche, telling me how he’s given his all in a fight to save his granddaughter’s future. There is hometown oldboy Roy Thomas, carefully photographing all the rubble, mudslides, and other miscallaneous fallout from the huge open hole next to his home. And there is Isobel Tarr and her campaigner colleagues, offering a helping hand, trying to think of new ways to make this industry stop. Now.
Then, a six-hour drive to the North East on a beautiful stretch of Northumbrian coast, there is craft worker Lynne Tate, walking her dogs on the beach every day, before pouring over the details of a traffic survey back home. There is Rob Noyes, recently graduated and working full-time now as an environmental coordinator, still raging from his student days at the hypocrisy of companies stuck in the past. And Andrew Stark, up for uni, wondering why the concerns of his generation continue to be ignored.
The two groups have never met, but they have one thing binding them: opencast coal mining. As far as they are concerned, coal is alive and kicking – hard.
The UK’s largest opencast coal mine is at Ffos-y-Fran, near Merthyr Tydfil in Wales. The mine was granted planning permission in 2005, and has since extracted almost eight million tonnes of coal. The company says it expects to extract around three million tonnes more over the mine’s lifetime. It used to supply the nearby Aberthaw power station, but EUemissions regulations means the station now must burn less toxic coal imported from Russia and Australia.
Nonetheless, Miller Argent, the Ffos-y-Fran’s owner and operator, wants to extend the mine.
The Nant Llesg extension would allow the company to extract another six million tonnes of coal from the site, the company claims. The UK used a total 12 million tonnes of coal for power in 2016.
Miller Argent gets to the coal by using large machinery to effectively scrape the coal out of the land. The industry calls this surface mining, in contrast to pit mining of old. It’s also known as opencast mining, due to the topographical transformation it creates.
Caerphilly council rejected Miller Argent’s plans for the Nant Llesg extension in August 2015. The company put in an appeal before Christmas the same year. The project remains in limbo.
Its ultimate fate could be significantly affected by an upcoming report from the UK’s planning inspectorate on a proposed mine 350 miles away.
On an unspoilt stretch of Northumberland’s coast lies Druridge Bay, about half an hour’s drive from Newcastle and slightly less in the same direction from the vast Shotton coal mine.
Banks Mining, the local operator that runs the Shotton mine, has applied for planning permission to open a new mine at Highthorn, sandwiched between two nature reserves, right next to the bay.
Look east from the dunes and you’ll see the sea. Look west, and soon you could see machinery hacking away at the earth, the company hopes. The expectation would be for most of the coal to be sent to local power plants, with some put on the export market.
The planning inspectorate is due to give a report containing recommendations on whether the Druridge Bay plan should proceed to communities secretary Sajid Javid by 4 December. Javid then has three months to make a final decision on the Druridge Bay project.
So while both projects are stalled, both could still be given a green light.
Until that point, plans for new coal mines in the UK remain in stasis – waiting to see if the government is ready to follow through on its climate commitments.
Javid originally ‘called-in’ the Druridge Bay project, asking the planning inspectorate to do a full report, because he wanted to know if or how it would fit with the government’s wider climate and coal phase-out policies.
While that makes the case unique in one sense, the objections raised by a motley cast of committed campaigners spanning the country go well beyond this.
There are some familiar themes.
Opencast coal mining destroys the landscape in which it is situated. And when you live in the Welsh valleys, or next to a stretch of unspoilt beach that acts as a haven for humans and wildlife alike, this is a problem.
The lifetime of the mines varies greatly depending on how much coal there is, how much companies can sell it for, and how government policies affect demand. Banks Mining claims the Druridge Bay project would operate for around seven years, while production at Ffos-Y-Fran isn’t scheduled to end until 2022. The longevity of the projects means many residents are concerned not just about the mines’ impacts, but the amount of time they and their families might have to live with them.
Eddy Blanche is acutely aware of the proposed longevity of the Nant Llesg extension. He told me:
“My granddaughter is now eight. I think she was just born when we started fighting this. By the time they’ve so-called restored that land, she’s going to have finished university for christ’s sake. It’s not a five minute scheme, it’s like 20 years.”
“I live in a beautiful valley. I live in beautiful area,” Blanche enthused.
“I come from London. I was born and bred in Dagenham surrounded by concrete. I’ve lived in the village for 10 years, and I still drive across the common and every now and again have to pull over and take in the view because it changes every day.
“The cloud cover’s different, the light is different, the sheep are out, the horses are out, the lambs are in the field, the cows are wandering about. And I still sit there, 10 years later, I still stop on the common and go, ‘you know, mother nature at her finest’.”
He thinks that Miller Argent simply “don’t give a shit about the environment”, and is convinced the new mine would do irreparable damage to the area’s beautiful countryside.
Lynne Tate described Druridge Bay, a five minute drive from her house, in similarly romantic terms:
“You get school trips and things in the summer, and you get people having the bucket-and-spade holiday. And there’s an ice cream shop and craft stall and the cafe, and people will come along with their kids and everything.”
“I go down to Druridge Bay every single day unless I’m on holidays, so it’s 52 weeks of the year I’m down there, and there’s so many other people who do the same as me — you see the same ones at the same times, and if you go at a different time you see totally different people walking their dogs or walking.”
“It’s people who like to come here for the peace and quiet and the tranquility.”
Rob Noyes, a former Newcastle University student, who joined Tate and others in the local community as part of the Save Druridge campaign, told me that putting an opencast coal mine in such a spot would mean “taking away something that really is an oasis of open space and freedom; for children playing, for families walking around”.
“It’s just a beautiful spot. And the idea that you would want to mine anything there struck me as just wrong.”
He said that if the Druridge Bay mine is approved, he’d take inspiration from activists across the country, such as those resisting Cuadrilla’s fracking activity in Lancashire, to try and prevent the project going ahead.
And it’s not just today’s residents they’re fighting for. Time and again, the hours they each spent trying to express the absurdity of planting new opencast coal mines on their doorsteps was justified through reference to future generations.
Blanche has a particularly emotional attachment to what the lush valleys around Merthyr mean for his family.
“I’ve had a new granddaughter born three weeks ago – when she gets to 10, and walks up on that common, she’s either going to see an opencast mine or she’s going to see a beautiful green field. If she sees a beautiful green field, I can say to her ‘this is here because grandad helped protect it. Grandad helped to keep it there 10 years ago before you was born. Grandad was fighting to protect this.’
“If it’s an opencast mine and she says ‘Grandad, why is this place all black, why didn’t you do anything about it?’, I can honestly look her in the eye and say ‘I tried to’. If you’re not going to do it for yourself, do it for your children, do it for your grandchildren.”
Tate is similarly resolute. She can’t understand why companies, the government, and local councils won’t learn from past mistakes:
“It’s very important for our children and grandchildren that we stop digging for coal now. We know what’s happened in the past – it was black gold back then. We thought then that this was one of the greatest finds and we had all this fuel to burn.
“But now we know the damage that it causes. And it causes it not just in relation to the CO2 gas but also to getting it out of the ground and spoiling it for the community and tourism and the wildlife.”
And then there’s Andrew Stark, a fresh-faced politics student angry that, once again, his generation may be about to be stitched-up by those that won’t be around to suffer the consequences.
“As a young person, I feel our generation has been handed quite a bad deal. This isn’t really something that is going to affect the developers that are older than us in their lifetime. It’s going to affect my generation in our lifetimes, and my kids’ and grandkids’ futures. So it’s important to just stand our ground and say, ‘we don’t want our future to be ruined’.”
This indignation, this sense that the will of the people is being ignored, extends to the institutions that are meant to represent their communities and the companies trying to muscle in on their turf.
Isobel Tarr, a campaigner with the Coal Action network, which has spent a lot of time with local residents around the Welsh valleys fighting to hold coal companies to account, said that in many cases companies are akin to “a really bad neighbour” that just “show up and treat them disrespectfully for years”.
“Local people have told us that they have tried again and again to use the institutional channels – through their local councils, through their democratic representatives in the Welsh assembly and appealing to the UK government – to try and protest this mine. They’ve been to the planning application enquiries, they’ve been lodging objections through the planning system, and have found again and again that their objections have been ignored.
“So people are very frustrated with the lack of democratic process that has gone into deciding that this mine should exist on their doorstep.”
Noyes was similarly motivated to try and hold Banks Mining and the Northumberland authorities, that have so far waved-through the plans, to account:
“In Druridge Bay, it’s just a drastic overhaul of any form of local democracy.”
“It’s just unfair. It just struck me as totally wrong that an area with some of the highest levels of air pollution in the country, and some of the lowest levels of economic growth in the country would then have a coal mine stuck on it with 50 short term jobs being used as the prime argument for bringing 300 HGVs to the area per day.”
Coal mining jobs across the UK are in steady decline. The industry employed around 1,146 people in 2016, according to figures first reported by DeSmog UK. That had fallen to just 644 people by September 2017.
And how have the companies treated those that already live with the noise, dust, dirt and disruption that the mines bring? According to Roy Thomas, who can see the existing Ffos-y-Fran mine from his driveway: “We’ve had nothing at all. Only arguments.”
Thomas spent an afternoon giving a tour of the Ffos-y-Fran mine. His family has lived in the same house for generations, and Thomas can point out every landscape change, every possibly unstable pile of rubble, every flood or mudslide hazard.
Pointing to the rubble discarded in huge mounds as the mining progresses, he showed me how “it’s just gone up and up and up”.
Thomas has meticulously photographed and documented hundreds of problems that he claims to have experienced from the existing mine – from cracks in his house he says are from blasting, to overflowing ponds and outlets when the mine floods. He has created an astonishing physical archive.
“It was cruel what we went through”, he told me. Miller Argent has “no regards for anyone living here”.
Despite his efforts, he says complaints fall on deaf ears. The company responds with “we’re sorry blah blah blah, but they don’t do anything about it”, he said.
So what does he recommend those at Druridge Bay do, to ensure they don’t get a similarly raw deal?
“I’d have every photo and every letter on a board”.
“Show them what this mine has done.”
But even if the companies pass on part of their profits — as both Miller Argent and Banks Mining do through community benefit funds — none of the residents are convinced the compensation would be sufficient.
Blanche is particularly sceptical about what in his view is little more than an effort to buy-off the community:
“They want to dig up Nant Llesg to line somebody’s pocket – because that’s what it’s about, the truth of the matter is simple. They talk about the community fund, or the compensation scheme as I like to call it, and how they’re going to give so many millions to the community, and how they’re going to create 270 jobs for the local community. That’s not what they’re doing it for.”
Neither Miller Argent or Banks Mining responded to a request to comment for this story.
So the UK’s coal mining industry is not dead. Not yet at least.
Guy Shrubsole, climate campaigner with Friends of the Earth, which supported the Save Druridge campaign, thinks the communities secretary’s decision could be a watershed moment for the UK’s efforts to move away from fossil fuels.
“I think this really gets to the crux of the phrase ‘keep it in the ground’. If we want to keep the fossil fuels in the ground that we can’t afford to burn, then that really has to start biting in countries like the UK – and particularly on fossil fuels like coal – now.”
He points to scientific evidence that suggests 80% of known coal reserves need to be left in the ground if countries are going to prevent temperatures rising more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels.
And there is little evidence to suggest the public want to see a resurgence for the world’s dirtiest fuel.
A recent poll, albeit for a pro-nuclear power lobby group, found only 4% of the public actively supported the use of coal power. In contrast, the government’s own polling consistently shows around 80% of respondents support the use of renewable technologies such as wind and solar to generate power.
This potentially creates the political space for the government to denounce its support for the fossil fuel industry and reaffirm its commitment to action on climate change, Shrubsole argued.
“This obviously has to stop and this has to stop now. And Druridge Bay could be this fantastic opportunity for the secretary of state to say ‘no, that’s it, we’ve had enough. We’re phasing out coal power stations, and we’re going to end coal extraction too’.”
“We have to stop giving consent to new coal mines.”
If Javid does reject the plans, the shockwaves will be felt beyond the UK. And the campaigners know that. Blanche knows that.
“From my involvement with [the campaign], you start realising that it’s not just about my little corner of the community. The problem we’ve got with burning fossil fuels is a global issue that needs to be stopped. Something needs to be done about it.”
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