Loopholes allow quarry companies to dig up Dartmoor national park

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The Independent Online

The future of Dartmoor, the last great wilderness of southern England, has been jeopardised by an unprecedented glut of quarrying applications in the national park.

The future of Dartmoor, the last great wilderness of southern England, has been jeopardised by an unprecedented glut of quarrying applications in the national park.

Environmentalists are dismayed at plans by three companies to quarry for stone and clay from valleys and heathland, fearing the excavation would irrevocably pit and scar the landscape of Dartmoor.

But there is little that can be done to stop the digging. In each instance, the developers are drawing on quarrying rights they were granted up to 50 years ago - when the national park network had only just been set up and before the modern-day environmental movement was launched. Dartmoor National Park Authority faces a bill of millions of pounds in compensation if it wants to stop the work going ahead.

In one proposal, Imris, the owner of English China Clays, which has operated on the moor since 1919, wants to create a "super-quarry" in the remote and wild Blackabrook Valley, which is rich in sand martins and other wildlife.

Nearby, on Shaugh Moor, an area of open moorland dotted with monuments dating back to the Iron Age, the clay company Watts Blake Bearne (WBB) is looking to deposit thousands of tonnes of waste China clay, which opponents say will eclipse tors and submerge ancient monuments.

"These developments will affect every aspect of the park, from its peace and quiet to its rare mosses, and it will damage the landscape," said Ruth Chambers, deputy director of the Council for National Parks. "There hasn't been a balance in regard of development in the national park up to now but if these plans go ahead then we really haven't seen anything yet."

The most protracted battle is at Christow, on the eastern boundary of the park, where a developer plans to reopen a quarry that has not been in operation for more than 60 years. The plan, by a local consortium of three businessmen to reopen Ryecroft quarry to remove dolorite, the stone used for road surfaces, has angered villagers and environmentalists, who say the development is illegal.

The quarry had first opened between 1930 to 1939. It was closed as a going concern in 1953 but now a consortium, Ryecroft Quarries Ltd, has leased, or taken up an option on the quarry, saying it is simply removing stockpiled rocks from 1939 - for which it does not need planning permission.

The village of Christow looks into the mouth of the quarry and villagers claim the noise of bulldozing, tree-razing and heavy machinery is intolerable. A local action group took the case to the High Court, where the judge ordered Devon County Council to review its stance on the legality of resuming activity in the quarry. The council has now said it will decide whether to stage a local inquiry to settle the matter and is reviewing the validity of the original consent granted to the quarrying companies.

Jerry Horsman, vice-chairman of the Teign Valley Action Group, said: "This is important because the whole country is riddled with these sort of quarries. This is a test case of great importance because a powerful consortium can, in total secrecy, drive this thing through without the local inhabitants knowing a thing about it."

The developments at Shaugh Hill and Blackabrook Valley also draw on permission granted to clay companies in the 1950s and 1970s.

Kate Ashbrook, president of the Dartmoor Preservation Association, says opponents have to press the companies on moral grounds. "The permissions appear to be binding but we have to put pressure on the companies to realise that these agreements were made in a different era when the environment wasn't valued in the way it is today," she said.

"It is outrageous for them to still be valid. If the plans go ahead the landscape will be completely altered."

A spokesman for Imris said: "We accept the environmental issues were not as acute then as they are today so the planning permissions are being reviewed, but China clay is a long-term strategic reserve."

Both Imris, the world's largest producer of kaolin, a soft clay used in paper and ceramics, and WBB are submitting environmental impact assessments (EIA) for their plans but environmentalists have criticised the fact the EIAs are being carried out "in-house" by consultants appointed by the two companies.