An unlikely coalition
In a surprising turn of events, a mining community that in Britain has teamed up with climate group Extinction Rebellion (XR) to shut down Bradley open-cast coal mine in Pont Valley, County Durham.
‘We do not want any more coal mining,’ says Kevin Haigh, ‘especially open-cast coal mining.’ Haigh’s is one of many local mining families that sought out the assistance of XR to boost the local campaign.
Environmentalists from across the country started arriving to lend their support from February 26. Along with local activists they lined the A692 roadside, and blockaded the entrance to a coal mine. Demonstrators brought hand-made banners, placards, puppets and yellow flags, and many dressed as canary birds in yellow fur, clothes and feathers.
The demonstration escalated on February 27, with a yellow boat being placed at the front gate, while 98 people trespassed onto dangerous, rocky terrain of the open-cast mine, and occupied it, with banners and pack lunches, for several hours. Further peaceful demonstrations continued at the main entrance until February 28.
An on-site spokesperson for Banks Group, the company that owns the mine, confirmed to New Internationalist that all activity at the mine was stopped on Thursday as a result of the demonstration. He added, ‘protesters have put themselves at high risk by entering the mine. This is a dangerous area and we do not want anyone falling over or getting hurt. We recognize the legal right to protest but this is private land, people should go to the main gate where they will not get hurt.’
A private security guard hired by Banks Group says that extra guards – including dogs and handlers – had been hired because of the demonstrations, and emergency services were on standby. Durham Constabulary confirmed that no arrests were made.
Trespassing onto the mine and occupying it, ‘draws attention to the mine and to its destruction. It’s destroyed this beautiful valley and hurt the local community,’ says Merry Dickinson, a spokesperson for XR. ‘It will also cause economic damage to Banks Group, who are prioritizing profit over people.'
Rowan McMaughlin, a local XR activist says the mine is right on their doorstep and ‘is terrible to do this to the landscape’.
‘It was green here. People played here as kids. You used to be able to walk through where the mine is now,’ they add. The land adjacent to the mine today is surrounded by a pine forest, as is home to many birds and insects, and sits within the picturesque English countryside.
XR said in a statement that the demonstrations are a part of the broader aim to demand the UK government to stick to its promise of phasing out coal within the next five years, and for all levels of government to adhere to their own climate emergency declarations.
This recent demonstration is an extension of a 40-year local campaign against mining coal from Pont Valley. Isobel Tarr, from the Coal Action Network, a national collective that supports local anti-coal campaigns, explained to New Internationalist that the collaborative demonstrations are, ‘a boost of energy to the local fight, making the mining impacts more visible to the public.’
Previous local campaigns were against (the now liquidated company), UK Coal. Local people, ‘tried everything’ and won against two planning applications, says Tarr. Local people ‘have kept the valley free from mining for decades,’ she says.
After UK Coal went bust, a third planning proposal was brought by Banks Group, which started mining the valley in 2018, it has now applied for an expansion of the mine, claiming on its website that, ‘the UK still needs coal to manufacture steel and cement,’ and that, ‘it creates a lot less CO2 if we mine coal here in the UK rather than import it’.
‘This is simply not true, for many reasons,’ says Tarr. ‘The UK has enough coal stockpiled to last till 2025, when the national government is phasing out coal. We don't need coal anymore. There is absolutely no reasoning for this mine expansion.’
Durham County Council – which has itself declared a climate emergency – is holding a hearing on the expansion of the mine in April. Although Durham is historically a mining community, coal mines ‘are now a terror,’ says Kevin Haigh.
‘My Dad was one of four boys who all worked in the pit with my grandad. My dad’s mantra was that he didn’t want his sons to go anywhere near the pits, it is dirty, nasty and dangerous. We do not want any more coal mining – especially open-cast mining. The dust spreads everywhere causing local pollution as well as adding to global warming. I have eight grandchildren and I am terrified. I am scared stiff. I don’t know what world they will be presented with if this continues.’
Haigh’s and other mining families all went to XR, who offered to help run the demonstration. ‘It was mutual: they gave us advice and we welcomed all the young people coming from all over the country, Newcastle, London, Liverpool, Yorkshire, everywhere,’ Haigh says.
Ray Leonard, a member of the Christian Climate Action from Durham and also the son of a coal miner, said in a statement by XR that ‘communities in County Durham have a proud heritage of mining and industry, and it has forged our sense of identity and place. The landscape has been forever changed by it. However, the mining industry should be the past, and it certainly isn't our future.’
Tarr added that the economic benefits to the local community from current mining jobs pale in comparison to the old days. There is ‘also a very important distinction between coal mining in the past and open-cast coal extraction now,’ she explains.
‘Previous coal mines in the north of England employed many people with unionized, well-paid jobs. Open-cast coal mining today, is a few people operating large machinery. It is not like coal mining before, which supported an entire community.’
Hamish Haynes, an XR activist who joined the demonstration from Lancashire, agreed. ‘The reason for the expansion is not to employ local people as Banks Group claim, it's for-profit accumulation to concentrate wealth and power,’ he added.
‘I hope people will continue to unite; labour groups, unions, community groups. We need diverse groups to collaborate for the amount of change required, in such a short time frame, to fight climate change.’