Closure looms for Markham Main pit

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The Independent Online
Markham Main, one of the UK's largest coal mines with more than 50 million tonnes of reserves, faces imminent closure unless a buyer steps forward by Friday.

The pit near Doncaster, one of six owned by Malcolm Edwards' collapsed Coal Investments, was handed back to the state-owned Coal Authority by liquidators Arthur Andersen after they gave up their own search for a rescuer on 28 June.

The loss of the last 65 jobs at the pit, which once employed 290 miners, will bring to more than 800 the number lost since Coal Investments went bust with pounds 50m of debts in February.

Andersen gave up after the last potential buyer, a buy-out team headed by mine manager Jonathan Oxby, pulled out a week ago. This weekend Mr Oxby was still in last-ditch rescue talks: "We're still looking to save the mine. We've spent the last two weeks talking to two industrialists. But I'm not holding my breath, put it that way."

At the same time, a buy-out team is also hoping for a last-minute reprieve for Hem Heath colliery in Stoke-on-Trent, which was also handed back in mid-May with the loss of more than 200 jobs.

Hem Heath has the second largest reserves in Europe after RJB Mining's Selby pit, and its former manager, Mick Morton, is in talks along with local open cast operator Apedale.

If both fail, however, it will be left to the Coal Authority to salvage underground mining equipment and seal off the faces and shafts at a cost of millions to the taxpayer.

"We've put in our last call for expressions of interest. If we don't have any, we'll start the closure programme shortly," said a Coal Authority spokesman.

So far just two buy-outs have succeeded: of Cwmgwili, a small drift mine near Swansea; and the twin rescue of Silverdale in Newcastle under Lyme in Staffordshire and Annesley Bentinck near Nottingham.

Markham Main's final crisis came after Mr Oxby - backed by PhilDrew Ventures and a group linked to Newcastle United FC owner, Sir John Hall - lost a three-pit bid a month ago involving Silverdale and Annesley Bentinck to a pounds 20m rival buy-out of the latter two.

Markham Main and Hem Heath's problems are caused by "face gaps": the need to develop new seams as current ones run out.

Mr Oxby is convinced an injection of just pounds 7m to pounds 8m would do the trick at Markham, rather than the pounds 10m to pounds 20m estimated by the liquidators. The pit also has customers for its coal: both National Power and Eastern Group were prepared previously to sign contracts.

CI's last gasps come in the week that RJB, which took the bulk of the pits on privatisation in 1994, splashed out pounds 94m on a share buy-back. It also paid back a year early the pounds 117m still due to the Government.

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