Government may try to mothball super-pit

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The Government yesterday pledged to examine the possibility of saving the Asfordby super-pit in Leicestershire from demolition, but accused the main union battling to halt the closure of "megaphone diplomacy".

The latest twist in the campaign came as RJB Mining, Asfordby's owner, revealed a 20 per cent drop in sales of coal to the privatised electricity generators in the first half of the year, casting further doubt on the industry's long-term prospects.

But Richard Budge, RJB chief executive, insisted he was confident that the company would sign new contracts for the bulk of its production next year when the existing long-term contracts expire.

John Battle, the industry minister, met a delegation of union representatives from Asfordby organised by David Taylor, MP for Leicestershire North West. He would ask the Coal Authority, the licensing body left after the privatisation, to examine the unions' plea to mothball the site.

"It was a private meeting. They put their case forcibly and we are going to get the Coal Authority to look at the viable options," Mr Battle said.

One question was if the Coal Authority could stop RJB from filling in two deep shafts at the mine and demolishing winding towers. Mr Battle said the law surrounding the role of the Authority was being examined. But he warned: "It's Budge's pit. There's no way we can buy the pit."

Mr Battle dismissed as "megaphone diplomacy" a claim that Neil Greatrex, president of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, had been snubbed over the meeting. Mr Greatrex said he was told not to attend after a report of the impending gathering appeared in The Independent last week.

"He's using the excuse that he doesn't want to meet national officials. But I'm also president of the Nottinghamshire area of the UDM, so I've been directly involved with the negotiations," Mr Greatrex said.

Mr Battle yesterday insisted the meeting was organised by the MP. "I hadn't a clue who was on the Delegation. This was a local meeting to meet representatives from the pit."

The closure was announced last month, with RJB blaming a series of geological problems which forced the company to abandon work on a large coal face. RJB yesterday disclosed that the pit, which cost British Coal more than pounds 300m to develop, made a profit of pounds 2.1m in the first six months of the year, compared with losses of pounds 15.3m.

But Mr Budge repeated that the unions had no chance of saving the mine, which could require more than pounds 150m of investment to build a new roadway to alternative seams. "It isn't going to happen. If it won't work now, then it will have the same geological problems further on."

RJB unveiled a slight rise in pre-tax profits to pounds 87.2m, despite a 17 per cent drop in turnover to pounds 565.6m. The fall came largely from the fall in sales to the generators from 18 million tonnes to 14 million.

Mr Budge said contract negotiations with the generators were still going on. The five-year contracts to supply 30 million tonnes a year to National Power and PowerGen expire at the end of March.