A Failure of Vision

Published in
July 2009

I’m standing on the brink of a devastated landscape. The entire mountaintop as far as I can see has been torn open by heavy machinery, exposing dark layers of coal beneath, interspersed with streaks of dirty snow. 250-tonne Komatsu excavators toil in the mud far below, scooping up the exposed coal and sending it crashing into the beds of 100-tonne-payload trucks. The scale is almost too vast to take in. Regarding this bleak industrial scene, James Poyner, joint managing director of operating company Miller Argent, invites me to have a vision.

‘In 17 years, all of this will be restored to a pre-Industrial Revolution landscape. There will be rolling hills with sheep grazing on them, trees, places for people to walk their dogs. It will be there for the benefit of future generations. It will be lovely.’

It takes a lot of imagination to envisage the sight that lies before me transformed into the rural idyll that Mr. Poyner describes. I’m in Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales, looking at one of the UK’s largest opencast coal mines. Or, as my host insists: one of the UK’s largest land reclamation schemes, which ‘incorporates the extraction of coal by opencast methods.’ This may sound like splitting hairs, but the distinction is important.

The Ffos-y-Fran Land Reclamation Scheme opened for business, to a storm of protest, in 2007. Over the course of 17 years, 1000 acres of ‘acutely derelict and dangerous’ ex-industrial land will be restored to its former condition and returned, at no cost to the public purse, to common ownership. So far so good. But there’s a catch. Before this restoration takes place, 10 million tonnes of coal will be extracted from the ground, much of it destined for the nearby Aberthaw power station. The actual land reclamation bit – replenishing the topsoil, planting the grass – will take a grand total of two years, plus a five-year period of aftercare. The coal mining bit, which Miller Argent claims is ancillary to the overall scheme, will take 15 and a half.

Mr. Poyner is at pains to emphasise that restoring the land on such enormous scale could not possibly have been financed by the local council. ‘There were huge areas of dereliction. Without the recovery of coal, nobody could have afforded to do this.’ He points out that the scheme was not conceived by conniving coal industry bosses, but by the Local Authority and Welsh Assembly Government, who granted Miller Argent access to the coal only on the condition they performed the land restoration. While opponents have decried Ffos-y-Fran as the rebirth of opencast mining in Britain, Mr. Poyner insists the project is merely the third and final stage of the larger East Merthyr Land Reclamation Scheme that dates back to the 1980s.

So what’s the true nature of Ffos-y-Fran? Is it, as the authorities claim, a clever, cost-effective way to fund long-overdue land improvement? Or, as the objectors maintain, merely a cynical ploy providing cover for the exploitation of coal on a massive scale?

Unlike the snow-patched quarry before me, the story is not black and white.

There’s no doubt that something had to be done to improve the land’s condition. Merthyr Tydfil, once at the vanguard of the Industrial Revolution, has served as a dumping ground for much of its waste for centuries. Formerly Wales’ most populous town and the biggest iron producer in the world, its fortunes went into terminal decline when the ore ran out in the late 19th century; it is now one of Britain’s most deprived areas, with the country’s 13th lowest life expectancy and 54% of its population classed as ‘economically inactive.’

Generations of heavy industry have taken their toll on the environment. The site that comprises Ffos-y-Fran is riddled with abandoned mineshafts, some dating back to the primitive bell pits dug in the 16th century, prone to unpredictable and potentially fatal collapse. There were three illegal landfill sites choked with industrial waste, one of which was even found to contain an unexploded World War II bomb.

The 1966 Aberfan disaster – when 144 people, including 116 children, died when a mountainside of mining slag collapsed onto houses and the village school – occurred just five miles from Merthyr Tydfil. Much of the debris from the clean-up operation was subsequently dumped at Ffos-y-Fran, a poignant symbol of the need to right the wrongs of past industrial development. Mr. Poyner invokes the ghost of this tragedy to emphasise Miller Argent’s role in cleaning up the land, protecting the local community.

‘We’ve also gone to enormous efforts to safeguard the ecology,’ he adds, citing the preservation of an ancient wooded valley and an iron age settlement, as well as the ‘translocation’ of protected lapwing breeding sites and endangered great crested newts. The company, apparently, has even installed an 8.5km ‘newt fence’ to stop the newts returning to the mine, which, Mr. Poyner assures me, is patrolled daily.

These arguments certainly sound convincing. It seems Miller Argent has all the bases covered. But if the Land Reclamation Scheme brings such glowing benefits to the area, why does it continue to be the subject of so much controversy?

To find out, I visit Alyson Austin, one of the more prominent voices of local campaign group Residents Against Ffos-y-Fran (RAFF), which has been fighting the scheme since its inception.

‘Everyone knows the land reclamation is just an excuse to get at the coal. People aren’t stupid,’ she says. ‘It’s true the land was full of mineshafts. This whole town’s like a Swiss cheese. But we believe it could be reclaimed without spending 15 years digging coal out of it first.’

Mrs. Alyson, a middle-aged mother of two who’s never been involved in activism before, doesn’t exactly fit the stereotype of the ‘usual suspects.’ She became involved with the campaign after moving into a new house situated, as Mr. Poyner delights in telling me, on land that had itself been reclaimed in ‘Phase I’ of the East Merthyr Land Reclamation Scheme. That house lies only 400m from Ffos-y-Fran’s outer boundary.

‘You can hear the machines from inside the house,’ she tells me over tea. ‘People come in for a few minutes and say “that’s not so bad.” But it becomes unbearable when you have to hear it all the time. If you are sitting quietly, you hear a constant drone. It stops at ten o’clock at night and starts again at seven in the morning. This is six days a week. It drives us mad. It’s like Chinese water torture.’

The house of RAFF chairman Terry Evans is even closer to the mine, lying just 37m from its perimeter fence. Under Welsh Assembly regulations, opencast mines must be situated at least 500m from residential areas. But of course Ffos-y-Fran is not an ‘opencast mine.’ It’s a ‘land reclamation scheme.’ It now becomes clear why Miller Argent are so insistent in applying that term. The euphemism has allowed the company to effectively skirt the regulations designed to protect inhabitants from dust and noise pollution.

Much controversy surrounds the effects of opencast mines on the health of those who dwell in so-called ‘opencast communities.’ Campaigners claim that particles of coal dust – PM10s and PM2.5s – cause asthma and other respiratory problems, particularly in children. Miller Argent denies this, citing the Pless-Mulloli ‘Newcastle Study’ (‘Living near opencast coal mining sites and children’s respiratory health’) in 2000, which failed to find a definite link between opencast mines and health problems.

‘There’s plenty of other evidence, but they choose to ignore it,’ says Mrs. Austin. ‘The Newcastle Study can’t be accurately applied here. It was carried out around opencast mines that were worked between two and five years, whereas Ffos-y-Fran has a 15-year lifespan. The particle monitors they used in that study only measured PM10s, not the finer particles. You can’t gamble with children’s health on the findings of a single study.’

RAFF have been a thorn in Miller Argent’s side since 2005, when they successfully got planning consent quashed in the High Court. The Welsh Assembly subsequently got that ruling overturned in the Court of Appeal, but RAFF delayed the mine’s opening again by petitioning the House of Lords. That petition was ultimately unsuccessful, and in 2007 the diggers moved in. Now, having failed in a recent application to secure a Judicial Review, the objectors plan on taking their protest to the European Parliament. Miller Argent claims the combined legal actions have cost the company millions of pounds, and dismisses the objectors as a handful of implacable wreckers who refuse to see reason.

But RAFF’s campaign has now spread far beyond Merthyr Tydfil. The ominous spectre of a revival of opencast mining in the UK has drawn the attention of environmental groups around the country. Despite Miller Argent’s insistence that Ffos-y-Fran is merely the final stage of a local land reclamation project, it would be naïve not to see the scheme in a broader national – and even global – context.

The coal industry in the UK is currently enjoying a renaissance. The confederation of UK coal producers CoalPro talks breezily about ‘a new sense of optimism,’ brought about, to a large degree, by a seismic shift in government policy. New Labour was firmly opposed to opencast mining in 1997, but since then its position has changed radically. ‘A number of government statements supportive of indigenous coal production have changed the picture significantly,’ CoalPro noted in 2006. According to Minerals UK, the British Geological Survey’s centre for sustainable mineral development, planning permission was approved for a total of 14 opencast sites in 2007, while not a single application was denied.

Coal, as the government knows well, is the dirtiest of all fossil fuels. The objectors point out that the mine is not only ruining their lives today, but will impact on the rest of the world through future carbon emissions. George Monbiot estimates the coal from Ffos-y-Fran ‘will produce 29.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide: equivalent, according to the latest figures from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to the sustainable emissions of 55 million people for one year.’ Now is the time, the campaigners argue, for the government to turn its back on coal, whether opencast mined or not, rather than promote the extraction – and incineration – of millions more tonnes of it.

Mr. Poyner counters with energy realpolitik. Whether we like it or not, he says, coal will continue to play a large part in Britain’s energy mix for the foreseeable future. Moreover, in terms of emissions, it’s actually more environmentally sound to extract coal here in the UK, rather than ship it from distant parts of the world. ‘I’m as concerned about climate change as the next man,’ he says. ‘But you’ve got to be practical. If you stop burning coal, which school do you close tomorrow? Which hospital? Electricity is the lifeblood of economic growth.’

‘You’ve got to look at the wider picture,’ says Mrs. Austin. ‘You’ve got to look outside Merthyr Tydfil and see what’s going on in the rest of the world. All the carbon that’s being mined here will end up in the atmosphere. What’s the point of having a few hundred jobs, and a nice green mountain to look at, if the rest of the planet is under water?’

There are two separate visions at Ffos-y-Fran. Miller Argent claims its opponents lack, or pig-headedly refuse to see, their long-term vision for the land: cleared of landfills and abandoned mineshafts and restored to its pre-industrial beauty (although the recent revelation that American company Covanta are planning to build an incinerator here, on Miller Argent land, somewhat spoils that picture postcard image).

But the objectors, in drawing the links between extraction of coal on a local scale and catastrophic global climate change, actually have the longer-term vision. They have looked beyond local concerns and seen the true cost of opencast mining, recognising that ultimately, it will blight us all. To engage with the threat of climate change we need leadership, intelligence and courage, but also the imagination to look beyond immediate realities. This, in the end, is the vision we need. Not the false comfort of corporate greenwash, or the euphemism of an opencast coal mine masquerading as environmental improvement.