Tip splits the valley that defied Thatcher

Andrew Buncombe on the go-it-alone mine in an environmental row
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The Independent Online
AT THE PITHEAD of Tower Colliery in the Cynon Valley, north-east of Swansea, a casually hoisted sign proclaims: "Welcome to the last deep mine in South Wales".

The sign needs correcting. As of 1997, when the Point of Ayr pit in Deeside finally closed, Tower became the only deep mine in the whole of Wales, a country which, as recently as the miners' strike of 1984-5, was home to 28 pits and an industry which employed 35,000 men. But now an axe also hangs over the head of Tower.

This time the threat to the mine has not been Margaret Thatcher, Michael Heseltine, or "scab" miners from Nottinghamshire, but rather the colliery's own success. This success has ultimately caused a dispute which has split the community and stirred up feelings as dark as the four grades of coal it works from the seams four-and-a-half miles into the hillside.

The problem is waste. Tower's order books are full - they can't dig the black stuff out of the ground fast enough. But while the mine might be producing 560,000 tonnes of coal a year, for every tonne produced, it also produces a tonne of waste. And half a million tonnes of mud-stone and shale takes up a lot of space.

Last April, the colliery's chairman, Tyrone O'Sullivan, made a planning application to extend its tipping site, which had room for nine months' more waste. It was essential a new site be found, he argued, or else production would be affected, orders lost and the mine forced to close.

Everyone thought the plan to extend the site across Hirwaun Common would be passed without a hitch. Everyone was wrong. "The whole issue has completely divided the village," said one trader, who requested anonymity for fear of her comments losing her customers. "People feel very strongly about it."

The story of Tower is a Welsh legend. Faced with closure in 1994 by the Tory government, which claimed it was uneconomic, 239 miners pooled their redundancy money and bought the mine to run it as a co-operative. Immediately, and ever since, the mine has turned a healthy profit and now pays decent wages to 400 men in a valley where unemployment once stood at 35 per cent and where the only other job vacancies are for security guards paid as little as pounds 1.60 an hour.

In addition, Tower has inspired books, television documentaries, T-shirts, and even an opera. There is talk of a Hollywood movie, with Al Pacino playing Mr O'Sullivan.

Given all this, it is perhaps surprising that so many people took a stance that could prejudice the mine's future. But in a poll last month, villagers voted 380-268 against the proposal. "Can't they find somewhere else to put all the waste?" Graeme Manning, 38, one of those opposed to the plan, said yesterday. "Why should it be dumped across our hillside?" In a community where the Aberfan disaster of 1966 has become lodged in the communal psyche, safety is another issue. "I was in Aberfan when the slag buried the school," said Susan Winter, 52. "We worry about that sort of thing. There must be somewhere for the rubbish."

In his office at the colliery two miles away, Mr O'Sullivan dismisses such talk. "I spent my 21st birthday pulling people from the mud at Aberfan. Do you really think I'd allow something to be built that was dangerous? We have the highest safety standards of any mine in the world."

He admits that those who say the tipping site will be unsightly have a point, but adds: "This is a working mine and I don't apologise for that. There are some people who think the way forward for Wales is to make it all green, that then the money would pour in.

"There are other people complaining who are just bitter and jealous." Jealous of what? "Jealous of all sorts of things - of having a job, of making a living. But I'd say that 99 per cent of the community is on our side."

In the end, Mr O'Sullivan's arguments carried the day. At a meeting of Rhondda Cynon Taff County Borough Council on Thursday, councillors eventually approved the application. "There are 400 jobs at stake at Tower. It is vitally important that it continues," said the council leader, Russell Roberts.

But it was not just economic factors that won the day. In a nation obsessed with the idea of a new, vibrant Wales, Tower has totemic status.

Ann Clwyd, the Cynon Valley MP who in 1994 spent 27 hours underground at Tower in protest at the Tories' closure plans, said: "It is a symbol of success. I think what Tower has done is an example to the rest of Britain."

The country's mining industry may have been irretrievably ravaged, but in one part of Britain at least, coal remains the king.