Fear and loathing in the shadow of coal

Opencast mining is dividing communities. Marie Helly reports
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The Independent Online
The prospectors are out in force in the village of Muirkirk - around the church, along gardens and garages, boring and drilling for black gold. Because, whatever the headlines, coal is not quite dead. One branch of the industry is alive and kicking - the highly profitable business of opencasting. Across the UK it now makes up a third of coal production. In Scotland, it is 80 per cent. The area south of Glasgow is home to some of the largest opencast mines in Europe and it is a growing industry.

But far from welcoming this new wave of economic activity in an area of high unemployment, Elaine Kelso believes her village may not survive it. She has been co-ordinating her village's anti-opencast protest with the Scottish Opencast Action Group. She says that as more and more land around the village is bought up by mining companies and the huge black scars move to the village borders, people are leaving town.

The reason? Although opencast is cheap and profitable, a big employer it is not. Where a deep mine might employ thousands, an average opencast site, stretching across an area the equivalent of 500 rugby pitches, may employ fewer than 100 and last for only five years before the scraping and sifting machinery moves on to richer pickings. Many residents of these traditional mining villages complain that this paucity of employment divides communities - those families that benefit from jobs pitted against the majority who go without but who still suffer the blight.

In South Wales, a big complaint is that property prices plummet when opencasting comes to town. One village has seen their council tax reduced by two bands to reflect drops in value of up to 50 per cent - a fact that Celtic Energy denies is anything to do with their mining operation.

In and around Muirkirk, the main worry is that the ugly scarring of their countryside is not just noisy and unpleasant, but that the dust may be damaging to health.

Ms Kelso points out that her grandfather's health was destroyed by old deep-mining. She is worried that the dust, which was previously trapped underground, is being blasted into the atmosphere and into the lungs of local children. She is not alone in that view. Local GP Diptish Nandy believes that more and more people are coming to his surgery with chest complaints, asthma and respiratory illness. And his contacts with doctors in other opencast areas confirm his findings.

But this is not hard scientific proof and until there is, companies and planners are not willing to concede that opencast mining is a risk to health. Which does nothing to allay the fears of local people living close to these mines.

Back in May, opponents of opencast were optimistic that the new Government would be a powerful ally against the shift from deepmining to opencast.

For starters, there was Tony Blair's commitment to reducing Britain's CO2 emissions by 20 per cent within 15 years. The Government's Energy Advisory Panel estimated that this would mean only 1 per cent of Britain's energy needs would be supplied by burning coal. Even cheap opencast coal would not survive that sort of reduction surely?

But now it appears that the one part of the industry that could survive - or at least outlive - the rest, will be opencast, with its cheap costs and flexible production methods. Celtic Energy is even predicting an expansion of its operation in South Wales, propelled by clean-burn technology and exports. The company will be helped greatly by the less ambitious CO2 targets just agreed at Kyoto.

Still, there was another weapon in the anti-opencast armoury. Before the election, a more environmentally aware Labour Party was committed to a clampdown on what they considered to be a smash and grab industry - the unacceptable face of coal. As more and more applications were submitted for green-field sites, Labour felt that the amount of damage done to landscape and ecology could not be justified. It published a 10-point plan as a basis for consultation with campaigners, planners and mining companies.

But organisations such as Friends of the Earth, the Scottish Opencast Action Group and the Council for the Protection of Rural England were disappointed with the succeeding document that Labour published once it came to power.

All were agreed that it did little more than reinforce current planning guidance and would do little to strengthen the hands of communities that wanted to resist mining in their areas.

Now Labour's hand is being forced. They have been roundly condemned for abandoning the traditional mining industry to market forces. Deep- mined coal costs pounds 1.25 to create one gigajoule of electricity, which compares unfavourably with the world price of around pounds 1 a gigajoule. Not surprisingly, the generating companies are looking elsewhere for their fuel. And one place that the National Union of Mine- workers say they are looking is to opencast coal, which matches the magic pounds 1 figure.

The mining companies deny that opencast is a threat to deep-mined coal. RJB, Britain's largest mining company, argues that opencast is a complementary operation. The company points out that UK deep-mined coal is high in chlorine and needs low- chlorine opencast coal to burn efficiently. Destroy opencast, they claim and you kill the remaining deep mines, and all those thousands of jobs.

The result is likely to be watered down government guidelines for controlling opencast mining.

John Gough, planning director of RJB, said he believed the 10 points in the Government's current guidelines reflect current good practice in planning procedure, which already protects the environment and communities. Not the sort of endorsement that an anti-opencast administration might have welcomed.

The campaigners are pinning their hopes are on the second part of the review, which is due to look at all mineral planning guidance next year. This may be a more radical document. But many people in the coal areas think that there would need to be a wholesale shift in the way we give planning permission to really give communities meaningful muscle to fight the powerful and resource-rich mining companies. They are not convinced that this will happen.

Even if there is a positive outcome, this delay in action may be fatal - both for the deep-mined industry and for communities living with opencast. New applications continue to be submitted and passed each week.

John Ramage Junior runs a haulage company in the Lanarkshire village of Glespin - right in the heart of Scotland's coal belt. He thinks the review is too late for Glespin and neighbouring villages. Like Ms Kelso, he thinks communities like his, far from the centre of power, have been ignored. He has seen house after house abandoned, halving the population. He thinks the 1,300 hectare Glentaggart opencast mine just approved on the edge of the village may kill it off altogether.

q Marie Helly is a BBC special assignments radio producer whose investigation into opencast mining will be broadcast this evening at 8.35 on Radio Five Live.