By Joop Hazenberg On

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The British government has big plans for making the country more environmentally sustainable. Prime Minister David Cameron stated that “man-made climate change is one of the most serious threats that this country and this world faces.” But in at least one respect Britain is wedded to the older technologies: coal, with the country being the third-biggest producer of electricity from coal in the European Union, following Germany and Poland. Coal mining companies have even pushed to expand extraction of the fossil fuel to new sites, despite party leaders’ pledge to curb coal power.

But opponents to coal have been fighting back. A planned open-cast coal mine at Nant Llesg in South Wales has apparently been blocked by local activists, citing health, environmental and economic concerns. On June 24, Caerphilly County Borough Councillors voted to require planning officers to draft a report rejecting the proposed mine. The final vote has been taken on August 4. Thus an estimated 6 million tonnes of coal will remain in the ground and the area will be spared significant air and water pollution. “The reasons I am objecting is not just because of the volume of people who are against it in the community, it’s because it will be an eyesore for many years to come,” said County Councillor Carl Cuss, who spoke against the mining plan.

The decision represents a major victory for local residents like Chris Austin, of the United Valleys Action Group (UVAG), who have been opposing the mines for years. Opponents cite the environmental and health dangers, with heightened air and water pollution. “We did quite a lot of work on biodiversity because it’s quite a unique area,” Chris said. “The Rhas Las reservoir supports migratory and nesting birds, with some endangered species, and peat bogs going back many hundreds of years.” The local environmental damage from open-cast mining, which strips the top soil over a wide area to take the coal underneath, would effectively have been irreparable. (Check this blog of Friends of the Earth on the matter)

Economic arguments were also used. The blighted landscape would have discouraged tourism, especially as Nant Llesg is just a few miles from Wales’ Brecon Beacons National Park and its beautiful red sandstone mountain range. At least one company, personal care manufacturer Richards & Appleby – which is even an official supplier to the Queen – threatened to leave the area if the plan went through so as to avoid the pollution. One-hundred-and-fifty existing and 90 planned jobs would have then been lost to the local economy. Mines in South Wales are unusually close to towns and villages, meaning the noise and particulate pollution hits residents particularly close to home.

Nant llesg and the Ffos Y fran open cast. Copyright: Eddy Blanche
Nant llesg and the Ffos Y fran open cast. Copyright: Eddy Blanche

There were also questions about whether the mining company would be able to finance a restoration of the site once mining was completed. Energy companies in Scotland and Wales have previously reneged from restoring sites, or simply gone bankrupt before they could do so, leaving costs of up to hundreds of millions of pounds for local authorities.

Learning from previous campaigns

Activists had previously opposed Miller Argent – the company pushing for the mining – with less success. In 2006, Miller Argent received permission to launch a similar coal-mining operation at nearby Ffos-y-fran despite protests against it. Ffos-y-fran is expected to yield over 10 million tonnes of coal during its 17.5 year-operation.

Alyson Austin, also of UVAG, says that residents learned from the failure to stop the Ffos-y-fran mine. “We made mistakes in the first campaign and we’ve learned from them. We wrongly thought that the people voted in to represent us would, if presented with a common-sense argument, turn the planning application down,” she said.

Instead, Alyson says that public pressure was more effective in convincing county councillors than a good presentation. “The first thing we did was to get public support. There were 3,700 letters of objection sent to the council, which is quite a lot as there are only 7,000 people in the immediate affected area,” she said.

This represents a shift in recent years, as there had long been little opposition to open-cast mining in Britain. But having suffered from the pollution and noise generated at Ffos-y-fran, residents were moved to oppose Nant Llesg. Alyson argues that sticking to local issues was critical to stoking public awareness. “You have to find arguments that apply locally. In this case, the countryside would be significantly degraded, and good quality jobs lost,” she said.

Uncertainty about Aberthaw

Protesters in Senedd, 17 June 2014

The local mines primarily feed the nearby Aberthaw Power Station, one of Europe’s “dirty thirty” most-polluting coal plants. Aberthaw, in operation since 1971, consumes 6,000 tonnes of coal a day and throws 8.5 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. The plant also emits dangerous nitrogen dioxide at twice the legal limit under European law, for which Britain is being sued before the European Court of Justice.

Opponents to the Nant Llesg mine have raised doubts about the relevance of coal given Britain’s objective of moving towards renewable sources of energy. “The planners assume that Aberthaw will be able to operate well into the 2020s, that doesn’t square with national energy policy,” said Guy Shrubsole of Friends of the Earth.

Indeed, British politicians have been increasingly turning against coal on environmental grounds. The leaders of the three main political parties all pledged during recent general elections to phase out coal unless facilities use expensive carbon capture and storage technology to reduce emissions. Last April, the Welsh Assembly passed a non-binding moratorium against all open-cast coal mining in the country. “It was the first time that any nationally-elected assembly in the world said to stop extracting fossil fuels,” said Shrubsole.

The decision on Nant Llesg is not expected to have a direct impact on Aberthaw, which can continue to import hard coal whatever happens to local Welsh mines. But Councillor Cuss believes it will be difficult for the plant to remain profitable if it bears the full environmental and health costs. “Aberthaw is guaranteed to run until 2020, as stated by a representative of theirs at the planning meeting, but after that it would depend on the contracts they’re getting,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of work to do at the moment to actually improve the emissions as they are currently breaching European law. That is going to be a big dent in their budget to address this issue.”

But whether or not coal declines, many are sceptical of whether the Conservative British government is really willing to make the push for renewables. “There are so many different types of energy projects at the moment that can address environmental concerns. We need to look at things like hydro-electric,” said Councillor Cuss. “I don’t think the government has got it right at this point in time.”