Britain’s great coal scandal
It’s impossible to sneak 300,000 tonnes of coal out of an officially closed mine at a rate of around 1,000 tonnes every day without it being noticed. And the mining company, Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd, hasn’t even tried to, driving it out of the front gates by the HGV-load.
Despite the end of its planning permission in September last year, coal production has continued at the Ffos-y-Fran opencast mine in Wales. Getting away with it has been surprisingly easy. For eight months the local authority, Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council, and the Welsh government have refused to take any enforcement action.
Between September and December 2022, UK Coal Authority statistics show that 1,000-1,500 tonnes of coal continued to be extracted daily - the CO2 equivalent of burning 1.5 million litres of petrol. While the UK Coal Authority has delayed publishing extraction figures for the first quarter of this year, local residents report the amount of coal flowing out of the mine has continued at the same rate over the last five months. In the context of the climate crisis and strong Welsh policies against any new coal mining, how and why is this illegal and irreversible daily harm being accepted by the powers responsible for stopping it?
‘We’re like dry rot’
Located near the small Welsh village of Merthyr Tydfil, the Ffos-y-Fran coal mine, was controversial from the outset. The Welsh government approved the mine in 2005 on appeal, by overruling the local council’s rejection of the planning application. Over the next 15 years, the local community fought a fierce campaign against the mine through the Residents Against Ffos-y-Fran group, which later became the United Valleys Action Group (UVAG).
Local resident Alyson Austin says community action has helped curb the mining firm’s ambitions over the years. ‘We’ve been like dry rot. They can’t get rid of us; we just keep coming back at them.’
In 2009 and 2016, residents and supporters set up two climate camps to protest Ffos-y-Fran’s contributions to climate breakdown Locals also raised concerned over the noise and health impacts of the mine, which is located in close proximity to the village with the nearest homes less than 40 metres away. In 2017, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on hazardous substances and wastes recommended an independent inquiry into the health impacts of the mine following complaints of very high rates of childhood asthma among villagers. This was never carried out.
A cunning move
As September 2022 approached, marking the end of the mine’s 15-year permit, locals hoped that the nightmare on their doorsteps would soon be over. But just five days before the site’s permit was due to run out, Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd, applied for a nine-month extension. In its application, the company admitted it had not set aside enough money to pay for the restoration of the land, which it is legally obligated to fund. The firm suggested that if the council didn’t allow it to mine around 240,000 tonnes of extra coal over nine months to fund the restoration, the local authority would have to source up to £175 million ($217 million) to pay for it themselves.
However, the Welsh government has a strong position against any further coal extraction, which would have made it virtually impossible for Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council to approve the extension application. This put the council in a difficult position; it could not approve the extension, but rejecting it and being left with a multi-million-pound restoration bill would have been ruinous.
It was odd to many at the time why Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd even bothered submitting an application that would almost certainly be rejected. However, the pending application for an extension was then cited as a reason by the council to not take enforcement action. This was despite activist group Coal Action Network having proven that the mine’s owners had ignored the end of planning permission and continued to extract coal illegally. The council said it would only take enforcement action if councillors rejected the application – even though this was virtually guaranteed. Under this pretext, the council allowed Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd to mine 240,000 tonnes of coal over the eight months since September - according to estimates based on UK Coal Authority figures from last year - rebuffing many calls to stop the illegal mining, before it finally handed the application to councillors for a decision on 26 April 2023. As predicted, Welsh government policies resulted in permission being refused.
Cease and desist?
In recent weeks locals have continued to spot trucks filled with coal exiting Ffos-y-Fran in defiance of the councillors’ decision, while drone footage captured on May 19 also appears to show active mining at the site. But council leaders have yet to take any form of enforcement action to stop the ongoing breach of planning control, seemingly intent on Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd obtaining the nine-month extension regardless. Environmental law firm Richard Buxton Solicitors, acting on behalf of Coal Action Network, has advised the council to issue a Temporary Stop Notice to the mining company, to rapidly stop the environmental damage. Yet the council refuses, without clear grounds for doing so, despite having already acknowledged that extraction has continued in correspondence with campaigners and local residents. The lawyers also advise that the Welsh government could step in to stop the ongoing illegal activity at Ffos-y-Fran under UK planning laws, following the council’s failure to take enforcement action. But so far nothing has happened on that front.
Through delay and inaction Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council and the Welsh government will have allowed a further 60,000 tonnes of illicit coal to be extracted and sold by the mining company since permission was rejected in April, bringing the total figure to around 300,000 over nine months - a climate toll of almost a million tonnes of CO2. Will this mean Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd pays for the restoration promised to the local community, or will the council still be forced to accept a cheaper offer by the company? Only time will tell. But the example of a coal-mining company like Celtic Energy Ltd, which evaded around £150 million in restoration costs over the past decade, leaves little optimism among local residents who always pay the price.
The story of Ffos-y-Fran casts doubt on the UK government’s reassurances that its new Whitehaven coal mine in Cumbria would be tightly regulated. Instead, we should look to Scotland’s de facto ban on all forms of coal mining, passed in October 2022. Nothing short of a clear moratorium by both the UK and Welsh governments is acceptable to protect our climate commitments and send a strong message internationally that coal mining is incompatible with a liveable future on this planet.
Daniel Therkelsen is a campaigner with Coal Action Network, a group supporting grassroots community resistance to UK coal mining.
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