Coal hurts communities, destroys wildlife and countryside and contributes massively to climate change. But coal has also been on the up in the UK over the past five years – some 50 opencast related applications have been approved in that time, and currently there are around 40 at various stages of the planning system. Power stations are, however, a different story. After the UK government paved the way for seven new coal fired power stations, the first for 30 years, some persistent campaigning from communities and direct action groups got this policy of expansion reversed. Now, despite the fact that coal consumption is still increasing in the UK because of existing power station capacity, the comping decade will see a massive reduction in the UK’s consumption – we could be looking at just one operating coal plant in ten years time, down from the 19 operating in 2013. This is certainly cause to celebrate, for people living around opencast mines or in coal fields (whether in the UK or overseas), and for communities who won’t be getting a new coal plant.
However, every silver lining has a dark cloud – in the meantime and while consumption stays high, profit-hungry, short-sighted mining companies will squeeze everything they can out of their existing and new sites, so at the moment there’s no relent in new mining applications. The other dark cloud, of course, is what the coal-generating capacity will be replaced with. Right now energy policy hinges on replacing “base load” capacity with gas and biomass, also very destructive industries. See this section for what not to replace coal with.
To feed the hunger for coal, both in the past few years and now, UK governments are overruling local councils and their own stated policies to approve new opencast coal mines – since 2007 some 43 new mines and extensions have been approved or applied-for, on top of the 40 already operating. This represents misery for the people who have to live with new coal as a bad neighbour, untold ecological destruction and massive carbon emissions.
For many community struggles against coal, the fight is as much about self-determination as any impact the development may have. Most councils pay lip-service to planning policy that presumes against open cast projects and favor mining companies over constituents. Even when a council listens to the people and rejects an open cast application, the government is likely to overrule the decision anyway. When it comes to coal production in the UK, little stands in the way of the coal companies.
Impacts on communities near open cast coal mines include:
Pollution – Noise from blasting and operating plant machinery such as dump trucks and excavators with affect near-by residents and wildlife, and diesel fumes from machinery and coal-transporting trucks will affect the health of local communities.
Traffic– Lorries transporting coal from the mines to railheads or power stations make the roads more dangerous, degrade roads and spread diesel fumes far and wide putting children and residents at risk.
Jobs and the local economy – Few open cast coal mines create jobs locally. The industry is so mechanised that hardly any employees are needed to operate the mine, and most open cast workers commute from outside local areas. Jobs are usually short-term and on a temporary basis and conditions are poor and dangerous. Genuine investment and job-creation in these communities would definitely not be in the form of open cast coal mines.
Giving back to the community? – Community trust funds are often established, but do they actually give back? Usually, around 25p per tonne of coal is donated to a community trust fund – compare that to the £118 per tonne that coal was priced at in 2009, or the £50 per tonne it is now. Councils and land owners are given substantially more by mine operators. The trust funds are often poorly managed, monopolised by the coal companies and give the community little say as to how the money is spent.
Recent studies have shown that exposure to dust and diesel fumes from heavy machinery on open cast coal mines can cause striking ill health in near-by communities, with increased prevalence of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, certain cancers and asthma. Mining companies and local councils, however, refuse to acknowledge this or even take appropriate measures to record dust levels, showing that they have no regard for the health of communities, where the profit of a coal-mining company is concerned.
See the Coal Health Study for more information, and Dr. Dick Van Steenis’s work.
Open cast sites and power stations are often sited on wooded areas, on or near Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and in ecologically sensitive areas with protected species. They tear up the landscape, literally turning it upside-down, and drive away wildlife.
As recent example, at UK Coal’s Blair Farm open cast coal mine in Fife Great Crested Newts, a European Protected Specie were present on the site, and mitigation in the form of relocation proposed by UK Coal undoubtedly resulted in the destruction of the newt population as their habitat shrank. The area to be mined includes the Black Wood Wildlife site, designated as an area that once had ancient woodland and was home to birch forests and oak trees. There were orchids present on the site and the site was also important for the diversity of breeding birds and wintering birds, with common snipe occurring in significant numbers during the winter. Bats are known to feed in the area and red squirrels were present in the north-east of the site, as well as Brown hares, listed on the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. The Cowstrandburn river is also being diverted along with other watercourses in the area. Scottish Coal bought the site from UK Coal in 2010, and since running into financial difficulty have mothballed the site, raising fears that it’ll never get restored.
Coal is the most carbon intensive of all fossil fuels. It is nearly all carbon, so it releases almost entirely carbon dioxide when burned. Coal is mainly burned for electricity generation, which is the largest source of UK greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for around 30% of the UK’s generation currently. Coal fired power stations are more CO2 intensive than any other type (except biomass), and are the largest and fastest growing source of greenhouse gases within the power generation industry (rising by over 30% between 1999 and 2005), although this will begin to decline in the coming years. Coal has been a key factor in the overall rise in UK emissions. If we are to cut those emissions, we must to stop burning coal, and if we are to encourage other countries to stop, we certainly shouldn’t be planning to burn more.
For comprehensive information on CCS see “Is clean coal an act of faith?”. The coal industry is touting ‘Carbon Capture and Storage’ as a solution, claiming the carbon produced when coal is burned can be captured, then stored safely. However, the industry itself admits the technology to do this does not exist, and will not be ready for at least 15 years even if they can make it work. The scientific consensus is that our emissions must be falling quickly by 2015, so 15 years is too late. Emissions reductions due to CCS virtually don’t figure on government projections any more. The carbon capture/clean coal myth has finally been defeated, it seems.
The biosphere has already captured and stored millions of tonnes of carbon – as fossil fuels like coal. Instead of putting this carbon into the atmosphere, we need to leave it in the ground.
For more information on carbon capture and storage (CCS) and other capitalist technofixes, see Corporate Watch’s excellent report.
In the face of reversed planning decisions, destroyed countryside, short sighted policy and hypocrisy, ordinary people have been taking action in extraordinary ways. Community-based campaigns have fought hard against planning applications and corruption in local councils and government. Opencast sites have been occupied, coal trains stopped, power stations blockaded and invaded. Coal bosses have been targeted and their offices picketed, all efforts to disrupt coal power stations and bulk transport and the day-to-day local work to stop new coal developments from happening in our communities.
From South Wales to Southern Scotland, groups are emerging as part of a growing, international movement defending communities and the climate from new coal. When faced with a system that won’t listen to its people and is disregarding the science in the face of the single biggest threat to our climate, discontent is growing and action is being taken. To get involved in groups active against new coal in your area, see Campaigns Across the UK.