Miners have continued to dig hundreds of tons a day from a controversial opencast coalmine in south Wales, months after its licence expired.
Despite its licence to operate having ended nine months ago, hydraulic dump trucks have continued to haul consignments of coal from the Ffos-y-Fran mine, just above the town of Merthyr Tydfil.
During that time, the price of coal has reached all time highs, hitting $450 a ton last September – about nine times its price two years earlier. It continues to sell for well above historical prices.
Coal Authority records suggest nearly 200,000 tons of coal have been dug from Ffos-y-Fran since its licence expired. But despite that potential bonanza, the mine’s owners have so far failed to provide the funds needed to restore the site – a promise that was the pretext for the mine’s licensing in the first place.
Spanning 450 hectares of mostly common land about 1.5km up a hill east of Merthyr Tydfil town centre, Ffos-y-Fran is Britain’s biggest opencast coalmine. It has long been opposed by climate campaigners as well as local people, and was only approved after its original owner promised to use some of their profits to restore the land, which was long treated as a dumping ground and was suspected to harbour toxic waste.
Until a few years ago, the vast mine’s centre of operations was just 300m from the home of Chris and Alyson Austin. They and their children moved to the area in 2003, two years before the mine was approved.
“When they were working opposite us, the noise and the dust was beyond anything you can imagine. It blighted our lives; it ruined our lives, to be honest with you,” Chris Austin said.
“We always realised the dust would be unbearable,” Alyson Austin said. “But what we didn’t anticipate was the noise and intrusion of it.”
“It was just all-pervading,” her husband continued. “You [couldn’t] get away from it anywhere in the house. You can’t turn the TV up over it. It’s a low frequency. It’s a bit like if you had a diesel lorry parked out the front for 15, 16 hours a day.
“From seven in the morning until 11 at night they had their planning consent, and we could only sleep in that [window outside those hours].”
The Austins also run the local chapter of Friends of the Earth, and are keenly aware of the mine’s environmental impact. “They’ve dug 11m tons [of coal], at least – I mean, that’s what they’ve declared,” Chris Austin said. “You do the maths on how much that has impacted global warming, climate change, Wales’s carbon footprint. It’s massive.
“It’s beyond anything we would have wanted to happen, so we fought it on two fronts.”
On 7 September last year the mine’s original planning permission expired. But its operations did not end, and workers continued digging for coal.
In the meantime, the site’s operators, Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd, applied to extend the mine’s lifespan until the end of March 2024, which they said would allow them to extract 240,000 tons of coal they said was left in the mine.
Chris Austin says the council refused to intervene before a decision was taken on the application, on the grounds they might stop Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd from doing something they could later be given permission to do. But three weeks ago the planning authority finally rejected the application, on the advice of local planning officers.
However, the mining has continued, and the council has not acted to stop it. Photographs sent to the council on Wednesday, shared with the Guardian, showed hydraulic dump trucks carrying loads of coal through the drizzle to the rail loading bay at Ffos-y-Fran.
Meanwhile, it emerged in documents accompanying the most recent planning application that Merthyr South Wales had deposited just £15m into an escrow account intended to hold the cash needed for the site to be restored after mining ceases. The council has estimated that the cost of restoring Ffos-y-Fran will be at least £75m, and could reach £125m.
At council planning meetings, David Lewis, director of Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd, said the company could not afford to restore the site and claimed it was operating at a loss. Accounts filed with Companies House said Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd made a £2.8m loss in 2021 and a £10.2m loss in 2020. More recent figures were not available.
A spokesperson for the council confirmed to the Guardian that permission to mine coal at Ffos-y-Fran had ceased last September, and that any mining still going on there was “without planning permission”.
Council officers were conducting a “thorough investigation” to determine “what enforcement action is the most appropriate”, the spokesperson said.
Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd did not respond to the Guardian’s approaches for comment, but told Wales Online that it is in “active discussions [with the council] for a safe cessation of coaling which includes ongoing restoration”.
Source: The Guardian