The company, which took over most of British Coal's pits at privatisation three years ago, blamed the decision to close Asfordby mine in north Leicestershire on serious geological problems. But unions and coal experts disputed the claim, arguing that the closure was likely to be the first in a series of shutdowns as the demand for coal continued to fall.
The closure last night thrust Labour's energy policy into the spotlight, as John Battle, industry minister, called for an urgent report into the decision and insisted the industry had a "viable future". "There's some controversy over whether geology is actually defeating this pit or not ... I have asked the company to let me know their view in detail," he said, adding that he was not content just to accept the company's decision. But Labour was also accused of adding to the industry's woes by encouraging greater competition in the electricity industry from next year, a move which was likely to fuel the switch to burning cheaper and cleaner natural gas.
Asfordby's demise has highlighted the problems for RJB, when contracts to supply coal to the privatised power generators expire next April. National Power and PowerGen buy almost 30 million tons of coal a year from RJB at well above the market price. So far only 3 million tons of supply have been secured for next year.
The amount of electricity generated by coal has fallen dramatically since the onset of gas-fired generating stations in the so-called dash for gas. In 1991 none of the United Kingdom's power came from gas, while two-thirds came from coal. Last year gas accounted for 20 per cent of power and coal for just 40 per cent.
Asfordby was originally meant to be one of three pits built in the area, of which only one was allowed after a prolonged public inquiry. British Coal had invested pounds 320m in the project since 1984, hoping to find 25 years' worth of reserves. RJB ploughed a further pounds 60m into the pit, much of it on trying to solve geological problems.
The two 500m shafts will be filled in and sealed by the end of the year, after which time RJB is expected to offer the land for sale. Hundreds of metres of underground roadways, lined with concrete will remain.
Gordon McPhie, RJB's finance director, said the difficulties were unique to the pit and could not be solved. "People who suggest otherwise are totally wrong. The risk is that if we continue we might kill somebody. This is about killing people." RJB had suffered a series of setbacks with its state-of-the-art technology since production began in April 1995. Beds of volcanic rock put the coal seam under such severe pressure that machinery was being damaged. Production was abandoned last week.
But Neil Greatrex, president of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, said RJB had moved production to a smaller coal face, where it was mining coal at a small profit, a fact admitted by the company yesterday.
RJB said it had offered to find alternative work at its other pits for Asfordby's 490 employees. Miners were given confirmation of the decision at a mass meeting at the pit yesterday morning. One, Robert Hubery, said: "I'm just devastated. I've been in the business 26 years and really don't think there is any future in mining any more."
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