Uncertain time for North East coal
At the beginning of November 1999 RJB Mining announced that it was planning to close Ellington Colliery during February 2000. This is the last large deep-mine in the North East of England and its closure would reduce coal production in the Region by nearly one million tonnes per annum (as well as leading to the loss of nearly 1000 jobs in the mining industry and among ancillary industries).
In the weeks following the Ellington Closure announcement it was revealed that RJB Mining had contacted the Department of Trade and Industry (DTi) and sought to obtain a package of financial aid in order that it could compete with cheap imported coal. Negotiations over the aid package are continuing and this prompted RJB Mining to delay the closure of Ellington Colliery until late-March 2000. However, on several occasions DTi spokespersons have told the media that European Union/ECSC rules could prevent financial support to RJB Mining.
These comments strongly contradict recent comments and correspondence from senior staff in the European Commission (see letter below) who have repeatedly stated that the UK Government can provide a subsidy to the coal industry.
If emergency aid can be sent to Mozambique to assist stranded, starving and homeless people, it is hoped that Ministers and the DTi civil servants can take equally speedy action to save part of the UK coal sector - including Ellington Colliery.
Text of letter (dated 8th February 2000) from: Christian Cleutinx, Head of Coal and Oil Unit, Directorate-General for Energy & Transport, European Commission, Brussels.
The letter was addressed to: Stephen Fothergill, Director of the Coalfield Communities Campaign, Barnsley.
"Thank you for your letter of 1st February 2000 concerning the issue of state aid to the Community coal industry. The Community established, in Decision 3632/93/ECSC of 28th December 1993, the objectives and criteria under which state aid may be granted to the coal industry. Under this framework decision, any financial assistance that a Member State may wish to grant to the coal industry must be notified in advance, examined and authorised by the Commission. However, any such assistance is a charge on the national budget of the Member State concerned and not on the Community budget. Therefore the decision on whether to offer financial assistance to the coal industry remains the choice of the government of the Member State concerned."
Other opencast news and reports
Since the Revised MPG3 was published by the Department of the Environment, Transport and Regions (DETR) in March 1999 there have been three opencast appeal decisions. The main details of these appeal decisions are shown on page 3.
One particularly important decision concerned the Hoodcroft Site II in Derbyshire. The Inspector concluded that the application by RJB Mining had failed the first two tests set out in paragraph 8 of MPG3 and so the normal presumption against it should apply. This was the first decision based entirely on the Revised MPG3 and gives a strong signal that a tighter regulatory framework is emerging for opencast coal appeals in England.
The Windsor Site appeal by RJB Mining was also refused during December 1999. This large site straddles the border between the City of Wakefield MDC and Kirklees MBC. The Inspector concluded that the application was contrary to the policies in the MPAs development plans and that the benefits to the local community from the proposed restoration scheme would not outweigh those considerations.
Developments in the North East Region are shown in the attached Survey. Several site applications will shortly go to Committees for determination - including: Cavil Head (Northumberland), Southfield and Hall Road (both in County Durham). New site applications are also anticipated during 2000 in Northumberland (the second extension of the Pegswood Moor Farm site) and County Durham (Wheatley Head, Drovers and Ramshaw Heaugh).
Opencast and health report
The report from the medical study on the impact of opencast coal mining on children's respiratory health was published at the beginning of December 1999. Key extracts of the report: "Do particulates from opencast coal mining impair children's respiratory health?" are attached to this issue of the Digest.
The North East Opencast Action Group (NEOAG) issued a press release on December 10th 1999 following the publication of the report. The main text read as follows:
"This important research project (funded by the DETR and the Department of Health) was initiated in April 1993 in response to concerns expressed by NEOAG in a letter to Professor Liam Donaldson, the then General Manager of the Northern Regional Health Authority. The subsequent three year research project was carried out by a multi-disciplinary team led by Dr Tanja Pless-Mulloli from the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at the University of Newcastle's Medical School.
The project team have carried out a rigorous examination of the possible effects of airborne particulates from working opencast sites on the health of children in five communities in Northumberland, County Durham, Tyne & Wear, and Barnsley, South Yorkshire.
Eric Lee, Chairman of NEOAG, commented that: "In recent years many coalfield communities have had to endure the prospect of opencast mining in their neighbourhoods. This has often caused lengthy periods of stress and concern in these communities, particularly over whether particulate emissions from the mining activities will lead to health problems (such as asthma and other types of respiratory disease)."
"The results of the research project will help allay some of these fears - but the findings do indicate that children in the surveyed communities were exposed to higher level of emissions (the potentially harmful PM10 particulates) and that they visited their doctors more often with respiratory, skin and eye complaints."
The report recommends that there should be significant changes in mineral planning guidance. It proposes a framework for the assessment of new opencast coal schemes. This includes a recommendation that where proposed opencast mining is less than one kilometre from homes there should be an assessment of possible PM10 levels. The research team proposed that the possible health effects of opencast mining should be evaluated if a proposed site could lead to particulate emissions causing a breach of the National Air Quality Standard. Under these circumstances local authorities could refuse planning permission for an opencast site.
Mr Lee added that: "We hope that the Government will carefully examine this research report and make the necessary changes to the planning system as quickly as possible."
"However, this research project concentrated on the possible health impacts of opencast mining on children's respiratory health. It must be remembered that there are often many other vulnerable individuals who live in communities adjacent to active and proposed opencast sites - including men and women with chronic respiratory and cardio-vascular disease. In addition, there are some former mining communities near opencast sites which have a significant population of ex-mineworkers who often suffer from respiratory disease and consequently are at risk from higher levels of airborne particulates. Therefore, any assessments that are carried out into the impact of particulate emissions from proposed opencast sites must take the adverse effects on the health of these people into account."
At the beginning of 2000 Strata Publishing Ltd issued there annual magazine on the UK opencast coal sector - Opencast Mining 98/99. This 114 page publication contains a wide range of reviews, technical articles and reports on mining companies and several opencast sites.
A timely and thought-provoking article in the magazine was contributed by Paul Wilcox (Mineral Planning Officer of Staffordshire County Council and Chair of the Energy, Minerals and Land Reclamation Planning Advisory Group of the Planning Officers' Society). The article (page 28) concerned the recently Revised MPG3 and is shown below:
"There has been considerable debate over the past couple of years about the future of the coal industry and how it will be regulated through the planning system. This new guidance (Revised MPG3) means that, instead of becoming the mechanism for developing the country's coal resources, the planning system will in fact become a battleground for individual projects. On the one side will be the industry, on the other the environmental lobby and local people, and in between the embattled Mineral Planning Authorities (MPAs) trying to balance the needs of society with the needs of the local electorate.
Who will win that battle? For many, it has already been won. The Government has not bowed to pressure to accept that there is a need to extract coal for blending purposes, nor has it given it a specific role in its future energy plans. The existence of a contract with a public electricity generator does not carry any special status, says the guidance (paragraph 4). There is no national need for coal and, therefore, future projects will be judged on their environmental acceptability and their impact on local communities. In some instances coal working will never be environmentally acceptable, and MPAs will be under intense pressure not to permit any workings - indeed, through their local plans, effectively to outlaw working, especially in urban areas.
Has much really changed from the previous guidance? I tend to think it has. The new MPG3 has very little positive to say about future working and, even where sterilisation is at stake, the environmental acceptability test will still have to be applied. Above all, the new guidance will significantly affect the future location of projects and the extent to which the public has control over this process.
For those whose job is to assess proposals the guidance provides some useful advice, although in certain cases this still requires interpretation. There is considerable discretion, but in the tough world of coal working assessment a little more prescription would have benefitted all. The biggest surprise and perhaps the most radical change is the importance attached to the MPA's assessment of a particular proposal. At the end of paragraph 8 it says that "MPAs' assessments of the environmental acceptability or otherwise of individual proposals should normally prevail". For the industry this will be particularly depressing; for the professional planner it will mean enormous pressure being applied by environmentalists and local objectors to negatively assess each and every project. Winning the hearts and minds of the local community will be of paramount importance. What with this and the view from Government (paragraph 8) that there should normally be a presumption against development which is environmentally unacceptable or does not provide overriding benefits, the land use planning regime for coal projects will be toughest for years.
There are a number of improvements on the previous guidance, including the requirement (paragraphs 43 & 44) for an Environmental Impact Assessment for most, if not all, future working projects. We also know that increases in the depth of a mine will need a separate consent (paragraph 19), that financial guarantees (bonds) can be sought (paragraph 64) and that, where material planning objections outweigh any benefits, planning permission "should not normally be granted" (paragraph 49). However, the guidance could have been a little more prescriptive on the question of what constitutes a "benefit".
There could also have been more specific advice on how the planning system can actually make provision for coal through its local plans. Much of the debate concerning the extent to which a locality might accept or tolerate coal working could have been settled at the local stage. As it is, the battle lines will be drawn at the planning application stage instead, and it will take a good scheme to breach the defences set out in the guidance.
The biggest shift must be the power given to the people/public. Indeed, they are the key to the future, and permeating through the guidance is the importance of local ownership, information and involvement. For all those involved in the industry the challenge in working coal in the future will be the extent to which schemes benefit the people/public and not the pockets of shareholders.
The industry will have to radically change the way it operates in the future. it will need to form partnerships with local communities and to see working as a means to an end, not as an end in its own right. Very high standards of working and restoration will be required, and the delivery of these standards will form the basis of a company's future in an area and whether or not it is successful. Indeed, some companies could fail if they do not change the way in which they engage the public and in which they present and deliver individual projects.
Meanwhile, beleaguered MPAs fighting to regenerate areas ravaged by mineral working will have the tools at their disposal to choose between no working and sustainable working by an informed and environmentally conscious industry. For many, the latter is a pipe dream, something that will never happen. I believe it can happen, but is the industry up for it? Only time will tell."
Copies of Opencast Mining 98/99 are priced at £10 and available from: Strata Publishing Ltd, 65 Tweedy Road, Bromley, Kent BR1 3NH - Tel: 020-8663 3331 FAX: 020-8464 5637