This year there have been a number of changes in relation to coal mining and burning in Wales.
Aberthaw, Wales’ biggest coal fired power station has said it will operate on reduced hours from April 2017. The power station is currently central to a legal case being heard by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). Aberthaw has been allowed by the UK government to produce more than double the Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) emissions that other power stations can legally expel under EU air quality directives. Much of the Wales’ coal has low volatility meaning an accelerant is needed to make it burn, which increases NOx emissions. The CJEU is challenging the UK Government for allowing this. In response RWE who run Aberthaw has suggested that it will stop burning Welsh coal, or drastically reduce its use, and burn imported coal instead. This coal is imported through Port of Bristol and comes predominantly from Russia.
The impact of Brexit on this situation is not clear, but the changes have been widely reported in the media. Given that air pollution from Aberthaw was responsible for 270 premature deaths and 5,540 asthma attacks in children the UK government and RWE need to take decisive action and close this power station.
There are now fewer opencast coal mines operating than there has been in recent years.
Only Miller Argent’s Ffos-y-fran, East Pit run by Celtic Energy and Glen Lash are thought to be continuing to operate. The future for these mines seems shaky with Aberthaw’s plans which leads to concern over their abandonment rather than sites being restored.
East Pit and Margam have been sold by Celtic Energy to Caribbean based Oak Regeneration, a shell company with no capacity to restore these sites. The cost of reinstating both sites is estimated at about £150m, but less than £10m has been set aside so far.
Celtic Energy mothballed their Selar opencast in March 2016 and Nant Helen is about to go the same way. This is likely to be due in part to Aberthaw’s intention of ending its consumption of Welsh coal.
There are currently two underground mines – Unity and Aberpergwm Colliery – which are officially ‘suspended‘.
Hargreaves who operate Tower Colliery have said that they intend to leave the power station coal extraction industry in the UK. So it is unlikely that they will mine at the extension application site at Tower, even if they continue to pursue planning permission. Hargreaves has sites in England and Scotland with planning permission which have not been started.
The Bryn Defaid coal application was approved but the mine has never been started, this is likely due to the low international coal price.
The planning application to mine at Varteg was finally won by local community campaigners who fought for 12 years to stop the opencast mine. The application was withdrawn by Glamorgan Power from planning before determination was given due to the excellent objections about the harm it may cause to Blaenafon World Heritage Site; destruction of one of the few intact inclines left in Wales and unnatural landscape any reclamation scheme would have produced in an area of importance to Welsh heritage.
Miller Argent’s Nant Llesg planning has stalled at appeal. The inspector for the public inquiry has requested full biodiversity and Environmental Impact Assesement again due to the major changes they made to their appeal documents to destroy Nant Llesg.
Cynics amongst anti-opencast campaigners believe that the mines are suspended or mothballed as a way of escaping restoring these sites. The companies claim that they would re-open them if the coal price were to increase, but this clearly isn’t the case.
In his recent tour of the UK Vladimir Slivyak from Ecodefense in Russia, explained that the Russian mining companies are stock piling huge quantities of coal and will sell it if demand increases at all, which would negate any possible coal price increase. Therefore the mothballed and suspended sites need to be fully restored as per their planning consents.
It is clear that restoration is going to be the major issue for communities living in the South Wales coalfields. A recent campaign to push for restoration at Parc Slip Margam opencast to be as per the planning permission was unsuccessful. There are similar situations occurring in Scotland – where soon there will be only one opencast coal mine operating – where dozens of sites are abandoned. Councils in Wales are not prepared to take the necessary enforcement actions against their friends in the mining companies.
The amended plans for ‘restoration’ at Parc Slip Margam are woefully inadequate. The flooded void will be drained into the adjacent stream, the river Kenfig, to maintain the depth at 48 metres. The plans for the road infrastructure to be replaced have been massively downgraded, instead of a normal road there will be an unpaved surface. Plans for footpaths, planting prickly plants around the void to discourage access, grassing etc. will all depend on finances available say local campaigners. The amount to be spent on the ‘restoration’ has been reduced to £4.7 million to allow £1 million to be kept aside for maintenance.
There have been recent incidences of local children swimming in the toxic mine water collecting in the unrestored voids which have perilously steep sides.
It is shocking that the companies who have made so much money from these valleys have been allowed to walk away with their pockets full and the holes filling with toxic mine water behind them.
So the news is mixed. Reduced production and consumption of coal is good for the climate. Sudden closures of sites is bad for the workers. Brexit is causing uncertainty. Restoration looks like it is going to be an issue which requires a concerted effort to enact.
If you have more information on these sites or want to get involved in campaigning on the issues raised do get in touch with United Valley’s Action Group or the Coal Action Network (firstname.lastname@example.org.