The good versus the bad and ugly

The quarry industry is going on the offensive to establish its green credentials, but Michael McCarthy unearths a deeper strategy

IT will be as intense an effort as an industry has ever made at convincing the public that it should be numbered among the Good Guys.

And if Minerals 98 helps the Government get the message too, and not impose a swingeing environmental tax on the extraction of aggregates - sand, gravel, and crushed rock - that could cost it hundreds of millions of pounds annually, then the quarrying industry will be even more pleased.

For a week, later this month, and then in open days all over the summer, many of Britain's quarrying and mining firms will be working hard to show that they act responsibly and care about the environment and their place in society, and that the scarred landscape is not the sole image by which they should be judged.

Starting on 21 June, the industry will be staging no fewer than four big conferences on successive days, featuring Government ministers, leading industrialists, senior geologists and other scientists, environmentalists and educationalists.

Then nearly 150 quarries and mines will throw open their gates to the public to show they have nothing to hide, and more, that they have a positive - but unappreciated - story to tell.

The campaign chairman, John Mortimer, wants to broaden the appeal of minerals and make people realise that aggregates, china clay, salt, chalk, coal, gypsum, potash, fuller's earth and iron ore, in one way or another, underpin all our lives.

"We can't imagine anything in our society without minerals being there," Mr Mortimer says. "They're absolutely essential. You can't travel along a road, go into your home, go into a hospital, without minerals. Everything around you relies on minerals which we extract and process. But people don't put it together."

Mr Mortimer, a senior executive with the building materials company ARC and the chairman of the CBI's minerals committee, thinks the industry has had an unfair press.

"It's inevitable. The media will naturally focus on what people perceive to be problems, rather than good stories, and it's part of Minerals 98 to bring the good stories to people's attention."

He has in mind such developments as Birnie Loch, a restored sand and gravel quarry in Fife, where the quarry company, Pioneer Concrete, has transformed an exhausted site into an award-winning nature reserve.

The former Kinloch quarry now has an increasing resident and migrant bird population and a growing number of insects and wild flowers in the new habitats the company has created, including islands in the loch, shingle spits, wooded areas and a marsh. Public access is extensively catered for.

The company plans to do something similar with the two other sites it is currently working in Scotland, one for sand and gravel and the other for hard rock. At Hart Hill quarry at Tams Laup, Larnarkshire, it is in the middle of pounds 1m worth of environmental improvements that are already being carried out while stone is being extracted.

`I think there's a move by the industry to put its house in order," says Andrew Golder, the company's area manager.

"In the past quarrying companies haven't done a good enough job of restoring sites and making them more acceptable, and in certain cases criticism was justified. But we're changing, and we're very conscious of the need to change."

Mr Mortimer goes further. "We want to show people we can do this job in a way that doesn't cause people problems and doesn't cause them heartache," he says. "And if we get it right, they won't even know we're there."

It is a contention that will be loudly disputed by environmentalists over the next month, and especially by Friends of the Earth, the Council for National Parks and the Council for the Protection of Rural England.

They say the quarrying industry is a business of outdated views which sees no realistic environmental limits on its activities, unlike, for example, the road building and housing industries, which have had to accept that they cannot simply continue to swallow greenfield sites. The core of the problem, the green groups say, is the eagerness of the companies to exploit sensitive landscapes in highly protected areas such as national parks, in particular the Peak District National Park, which is under assault from firms seeking the limestone that gives the park its distinctive landscape.

"They can all try to beautify a hole in the ground after they've dug it," says Julian Tippett, a local campaigner in the Peak Park. "But they never stop to think about whether they should dig it in the first place."

The environmental pressure groups all instance the behaviour of the giant company RMC at its quarries at Eldon Hill and Longstone Edge in Derbyshire.

Two years ago RMC was refused a time extension to its permit at Eldon Hill, due to expire in September 1997; the company merely vastly increased its dynamiting of the hill, creating a stockpile of 1.5 million tonnes of limestone, worth pounds 15m, which will not be shifted for another year: giving it, in effect, a two-year extension by the back door.

Eldon Hill is now the biggest scar on the park's landscape, visible for miles around.

Shortly afterwards the company planned to turn what was originally a Derbyshire fluorspar mine into a limestone superquarry that would have destroyed Longstone Edge, a park ridge much loved by walkers.

The Peak Park Planning Board refused, and the company says it has accepted the refusal, although the owner of the site is seeking leave in the High Court next month to challenge the decision by judicial review.

During this time, RMC was also seeking a large extension to its quarry at Spaunton in the North Yorkshire Moors National Park, which was finally turned down by the Deputy Prime Minister and Environment Secretary, John Prescott, six weeks ago.

The company is having open days at eight of its quarries - but not at any of those sited in a national park.

"Minerals 98," said Robin Maynard, of Friends of the Earth, "is a simply a PR exercise seeking to take the heat off an unsustainable dinosaur industry."

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