A dirty black hole

From Wales to Colombia, the scourge of opencast coal mining is being driven by our continued dependence on this dirtiest of fossil fuels, writes Kelvin Mason
August 2013


Opencast mining at Ffos-y-Fran, near Merthyr Tydfil. Photo: Chris Austin

In October 2007, George Monbiot looked at a green hilltop in Merthyr Tydfil where a massive new opencast coal mine was planned and warned of ‘the new coal age’. ‘One thought kept clanging through my head,’ he wrote. ‘If this is allowed to happen, we might as well give up now.’

Covering 367 hectares, Ffos-y-fran was to be a huge mine, involving the excavation of 11 million tonnes of coal by 2025 and so responsible for at least 25 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. Monbiot’s article was one spur for a campaign of direct action against the project, in which climate justice activists joined residents opposing the impact on the local environment. The campaign reached its peak in 2009 with a week-long climate action camp of around 500 people in Merthyr Tydfil.

Four years later, mining at Ffos-y-fran is in full swing. It is is just one of a number of new generation opencast coal mines planned for Wales. Over the formerly green hilltop from Ffos-y-fran, near the small town of Rhymney, the same Miller Argent consortium proposes another mine – in effect a further huge extension to the existing one, as residents see it. If Nant Llesg receives planning permission, it will mine up to nine million tonnes of coal, emitting more than 20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide when burned.

Meeting demand

Developers such as Miller Argent claim they are merely meeting demand – and, in the case of Ffos-y-fran, reclaiming large areas of derelict land from earlier mining activity ‘at no cost to the public purse’. According to the International Energy Agency, some 41 per cent of world electricity generation is fuelled by coal. In the UK we still depend on coal for 30 per cent our of electricity production, rising to more than 40 per cent in winter periods of peak demand. In 2011, we burned 41.8 million tonnes of coal in power stations.

Driven by the domestic boom in shale gas production, US exports of cheap coal to Europe increased 23 per cent to more than 60 million tonnes in 2012. That same year, the percentage of UK electricity generated from coal rose to its highest since 1995. Meanwhile, the 2008 Climate Change Act binds the UK to at least an 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions against a 1990 baseline by 2050, and 34 per cent by 2020.

In this context, coal is the worst-choice fuel, emitting around 910 grammes of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, per kilowatt hour of electricity generated compared to some 500 grammes for gas and zero for renewable sources such as wind. So, while the US burns cleaner gas, imports of its unwanted, dirty coal serve to impede the development of renewables in the UK. In the valleys of South Wales the UK government’s rhetorical commitment to mitigating climate change meets our greed for cheap energy head on, and the first casualty is the local community.

Exploitation and jobs

Historically, the area around Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney was noted for its natural resources of iron ore, coal, limestone and water. During the industrial revolution this provided ideal conditions for the development of ironworks and associated industry, which contributed enormously to British economic and naval power, with much of the iron being used to build merchant vessels and warships. But most of the vast industrial wealth generated left the area along with the iron and the ironmasters. The people of the area did not benefit in proportion to the labour they provided, while their landscape was scarred and the local environment blighted.

Today, with higher unemployment, lower than average life expectancy and a greater incidence of illnesses, which limit people’s ability to live a full life and to work, Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney are among the most deprived communities in Wales. Contrary to any romantic notion, coal remains part of the fabric of everyday life and culture not in song or poetry but as extensive spoil tips and the pneumoconiosis and emphysema suffered by ex-miners. If it continues as proposed, the current round of opencast coal mining will compound this situation.

In the current economic context, the issue of jobs tends to dominate the debate over existing and proposed coal mines. Opencast mining companies highlight job creation, while campaign groups argue that these jobs will be few, highly specialised and thus not open to local people. Established local businesses claim they will be forced to shed jobs as their marketing depends on the clean air, water and green landscapes of Wales. These days, these traditional mining areas strive to offer themselves as tourist attractions, boasting dramatic mountain scenery. No matter how the developers try to present it, opencast coal mining means dust, noise and a dirty black hole in the ground.

Global markets

Any jobs created are also highly vulnerable in the face of unregulated global markets. The current resurgence of opencast mining was spurred by rises in the price of imported coal in 2007 and 2008, before the market was inundated by cheap imports from the US. Despite the high cost of transportation, low prices favour the continued import of coal rather than investment in new opencast mines in the UK.

In April, Scottish Coal announced the closure of its six opencast mines in Scotland with the loss of 600 jobs. If a similar collapse affects companies in Wales, it will be a very mixed blessing. While communities will be spared the dust, noise and visual impacts of opencast mining, the jobs lost will have a significant effect on local economies. And the social and environmental injustices that Wales is spared will simply be exported to communities in places such as Indonesia, Australia, Russia, the US and Colombia.

In Colombia, for instance, the Cerrejón opencast mine, Latin America’s largest, has progressively swallowed whole villages previously occupied by indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities since it was opened in 1976. Further destruction and environmental damage is threatened by a planned major extension of the mine, which is being fought by the local community.

Moreover, whether the UK continues to burn imported or domestic coal makes no difference to the scale of emissions of carbon dioxide. With mounting opposition to wind farm development and an uncertain future for nuclear power, the UK looks set to remain dependent on fossil fuels and thus miss its commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Community groups in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney may wish the government to make the change to zero-carbon energy sooner rather than later. But instead they are faced with the prospect of their local employment and economies becoming increasingly dependent on the dirtiest and most damaging of fossil fuels.

Alternative vision

Despite George Monbiot’s grim admonishment and the dire circumstances in which they find themselves, Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney residents have not given up. By forming the United Valleys Action Group (UVAG) and alliances with others, their struggle against Ffos-y-fran continues. UVAG has pledged to oppose Nant Llesg by all means at its disposal. In the meantime, local campaigners have successfully opposed plans for a ‘monster’ waste incinerator, joining with Friends of the Earth Cymru in researching an alternative vision whereby 3,000 jobs would be created through improvements in recycling and waste management, home energy efficiency and small-scale renewable energy development.

Coal is the extreme energy we are already dependent upon and that situation must change. What UVAG needs now is allies prepared to oppose coal mining and the exploitation of mining communities across the globe at every level: For a just future, we all need to say a resounding ‘No’ to old king coal and ‘Yes’ to energy conservation, public, co-operative and community-owned renewable energy developments, and green jobs.


The centre-left's narrative on climate change has convinced no one

Trump's victory is another sign of the failure of the centre-left's narrative on climate change. A new message is needed, and new politicians to deliver it, writes Alex Randall

Airport expansion is a racist policy

Climate change is a colonial crisis, writes Jo Ram

Resisting airport expansion, from the ZAD to Heathrow

Kelvin Mason speaks to John Jordan who is squatting the site of a planned airport in France

It's happening: 2016 is the year of climate disobedience

Kara Moses describes a season of record-breaking milestones in the fight against climate change

Steve Leary 14 August 2013, 01.44

From Steve Leary, Co-ordinator, the Loose Anti Opencast Network

Kevin Mason from the United Valleys Action Group is right to draw attention to the scourge that is opencast mining both here in the UK and abroad. Perhaps though, his article should have been called ‘Dirty Black Holes’ as, according to the Coal Authority, in 2012 34 opencast coal mines operated across Britain and they produced over 10m tonnes of coal.

The Loose Anti Opencast Network (LAON) has been campaigning against potential new opencast mines across the UK since 2009. LAON is currently monitoring proposals to develop a further 34 new opencast sites across Britain, 13 sites in England, 14 in Scotland and 7 in Wales. Currently there are over 20 local groups objecting to such destructive and intrusive planning proposals. Kevin mentions the proposed large 9m tonne Nant Llesg site in Wales, but both Scotland and England have large site proposals as well, the 10m tonne site proposal at Caulhall nr Rosewell in Midlothian and the 7m tonne Highthorn site proposal near Duridge Bay in Northumberland.

In the UK opencast coal mining is a highly speculative industry which can leave in its wake severe environmental damage. We are witness to this now, with two major opencast coal operations going bankrupt in Scotland earlier this year, Scottish Coal and ATH Resources, leaving behind at least 15 scares in the landscape where large coal sites have yet to be restored. For one local authority alone, East Ayrshire, the cost of the clean up to the local taxpayers is expected to be £74m. This is already the price we are paying in the UK to exploit this source of energy.

The United Valleys Action Group is welcome to ally itself with LAON to work towards the elimination of opencast coal working where local communities in the UK feel it to be inappropriate. If others want to find out if there is a local campaign group objecting to an opencast mine application near them then contact LAON via infoatlaon@yahoo.comitself

To find out more about LAON just Google “The Loose Anti Opencast Network” or follow Seftonchase on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Seftonchase

Bugsy 19 August 2013, 20.56

It’s not just the gigantic and unsightly holes that are left after the mine’s exhausted, either. Before the “top-cut” can even begin, the first stage in removing the earth to access the seam, the process of pumping off the groundwater starts from four to six years before that and deprives all of the vegetation in a very wide area around the site of sustenance. In addition, the mining companies aren’t particularly fussy and they dump the deeper, sterile, layers on top of the higher, more fertile, layers on the huge spoil mountains. The result is a moon landscape on which nothing can grow, even 30 or 40 years after mining activities have ceased. Before opencast mining can even commence, there should be a law mandating that the mining company is obligated to return the area to its former condition. That would potentially make opencast mining unprofitable.



Richard Solly 26 August 2013, 08.02

The Cerrejon coal mine in Colombia that Kelvin mentions is about to force another small farming community off its land. The village of Roche is scheduled for forced eviction on Thursday 29 August. Mining company officials have shown complete contempt for the community in relocation negotiations, and a stalemate has developed.

The mine is owned by three massive multinational mining companies listed on the London Stock Exchange: Anglo American, BHP Billiton and Glencore Xstrata. In the hope of postponing the eviction to give more time for negotiations, Colombia Solidarity Campaign is organising a flying picket of these companies’ London offices on Tuesday 27 August, starting at 2pm. Please come!

See http://www.colombiasolidarity.org.uk/events/26-upcoming-events/594-el-cerrejon-mine-in-colombia-attacks-communities-ino-pasaran for details.

Comments are now closed on this article.

Red Pepper · 44-48 Shepherdess Walk, London N1 7JP · +44 (0)20 7324 5068 · office[at]redpepper.org.uk
Advertise · Press · Donate
For subscriptions enquiries please email subs@redpepper.org.uk