Monday, September 26, 2011

An opencast mine could come to your back yard - and there is little you can do about it

Ffos-y-Fran open cast cola mine
Wales is still mourning the death of the four coal miners who were killed ten days ago at the Gleision Colliery near Cilybebyll, Swansea Valley. It's another reminder of just how dangerous this energy source is.

Welsh people puzzled over why the next Saturday's English newspapers led with the story of English rugby centre Mike Tindall, his wife Zara Phillips, and a certain blonde, rather than this tragedy, thinking that if the loss of four lives in a mining disaster had happened in England it would have received front page attention.

Be that as it may, the accident also served to highlight that coal has become more economic to mine in this country - and that opencast mining, while carrying more environmental risk, carries less risk to human life.

In terms of the number of people killed per unit of energy provided, coal mining certainly beats nuclear power, as this rather dissembling comparison made by pro-nuclear commentators established earlier this year.

So one might, then, welcome the fact that of 28 mines recently approved nationally, 14 are opencast; but the impetus for opencast mining has less to do with respect for life (health and safety regulations notwithstanding) and more to do with the economics of opencast vs. deep mines.

14 - the number that received planning permission in 2009, the last year for which statistics are available – is a lot when you consider that there were but 35 mines in production that year. Only six applications were refused, and they will probably be resubmitted, if they haven't been already.

In terms of area, these permitted developments total 367 hectares in England, 51 in Wales, topped by 623 in Scotland - a total of 1041 hectares - or about the same number of rugby pitches.

Coal is back. In England, production from opencast coal mining has started to increase again, following a peak in 1989 of over 12 million tonnes to a low of under one million in 2006.

Scottish production has never been below five million a year, while that in Wales has also increased over the last decade, now standing at over 1.5 million tonnes.

Residents who live near these mines experience terrible effects. Coal dust quickly dirties paintwork and washing, the noise of the huge trucks is constant and wearing, and the environment is devastated by being ripped up.

At Ffos-y-Fran, near Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales, homes lie as near as 36 metres from the pit, which is a huge scar on the countryside 200 metres deep and three kilometres wide.

Local residents are currently locked in a legal dispute, trying to obtain compensation from the pit's owner, Miller-Argent (South Wales) Ltd.

Undaunted, Miller-Argent is now planning another opencast mine at Nant Llesg next to Ffos-y-Fran.

Exploratory work began last month and will continue for six months in preparation for a potential planning application in Spring 2012. Work could start in 2014 and last for over 15 years.

Climate activists - like the Coal Action Network - argue that the best form of carbon sequestration is to leave the coal in the ground - and they have an excellent point.

With Drax, formerly the UK's largest coal-burning power station, converting increasingly to combustion of biomass, and no more coal-burning power stations in the planning pipeline, at least until or unless carbon capture and storage becomes realistic and economically feasible, demand for coal will one day tail off.

But until the UK is able to rely much more on low carbon generation, its part in the electricity generation mix is set to continue.

Wales and Scotland have laws requiring a 500-metre buffer zone between opencast mines and homes. The situation at Ffos-y-Fron (developed before this law was passed) could not be repeated in Wales.

But, astonishingly to some, English homes currently have no such protection.

However, a Private Members' Bill is slowly winding its way through Parliament that could require the Secretary of State to publish guidance on opencast mining policy in England and give residents living near proposed opencast mines the same protection as that enjoyed in Wales and Scotland.

Brought by North West Leicestershire Tory MP Andrew Bridgen, the Planning (Opencast Mining Separation Zones) Bill would bring England into line with its neighbours in this respect, "unless the circumstances are exceptional".

New, opencast mines are planned right across England - in the counties of Derbyshire, Yorkshire, Durham, Northumberland, Cumbria, Greater Manchester, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire. Is there one near you? You might want to check.

Bridgen's Bill passed its first reading way back in June 2010 and was due to be have its second in February this year, but only received a partial discussion. It was scheduled again for 28 October – next month - but once more has been squeezed out for lack of Parliamentary time.

This is bad news for anyone living near the sites threatened by the new pits or an expansion of existing ones, like the mother of one of Bridgen's constituents from whom he received a letter which contained the following:

“They have just started an opencast mine in the field behind my mother’s house in Shropshire" (where protestors were evicted from a camp last month). "In weeks we expect her view of fields and The Wrekin to be replaced by a 9 metre high mound of earth 6 metres from her property. She is 84 years old and until the Shropshire Star did an article on her, the opencast company had not even bothered to visit her or contact her.

"With an opencast mine and then a landfill site she will no longer be able to open her windows or sit in her garden. What a way to spend the final years of your life. She would now like to move but this is now impossible. Nobody would buy it and the opencast company is not interested even though they own the property on either side of her.”

Surely the Localism Bill will help such people? I'm afraid not; it specifically excludes mineral policy, and will give no protection for local communities against developments such as this.

I repeat: if you hear of a mine – of any type - planned near your home, there is little you can do about it.

In Scotland, despite the exclusion zone, there is plenty of opposition to opencast mining, which shows that although a buffer zone provides some protection, it does not mean that residents living near to such mines are happy about them.

Despite the Coalition Government's localism agenda, planning law, now and into the future, allows developers to bulldoze their way through the wishes of local people.

The fact that such mines are opposed by MPs of every hue when one threatens their constituency shows that no one really wants them. And yet, presumably, we want the benefits they yield.

What can we do? At the very least, communities should be able to express an opinion on the way Mineral Planning Policy for their area could impact on their local Neighbourhood Plan, and obtain information from and petition their local Mineral Planning Authority.

There is still time to inscribe this in legislation, before the Localism Bill becomes law and the National Planning Policy Framework is adopted. But those wishing to do so must act fast.

You could also contact your MP and ask them to support Bridgen's Buffer Zone Bill by finding the time to take it further.

It's not just coal, but any mineral which is affected by this policy. You never know - some may be discovered in your back yard - as it has this month in the case of shale gas to the communities between Preston and Blackpool, Lancashire.

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