The mines, which will turn green fields into industrial moonscapes, have excited fierce opposition in Derbyshire, where the 11th duke (motto: "secure by caution") has his celebrated family seat, Chatsworth House.
Yet the CPRE, which has long been the pressure group most vociferously opposed to opencasting, and says it "causes damage to the environment on a scale unparalleled in this country", has gone out of its way to persuade the Duke to stay on as one of its vice-presidents.
The Duke's Chatsworth Estate will get a royalty for every ton of coal torn from the countryside, if the proposals get the go-ahead, but the Duke himself told the Independent on Sunday late last week that he "resents" being blamed.
The estate has agreed with two opencast companies that they can mine its land in Derbyshire. The companies have yet to complete applications for planning permission, but the proposals are already meeting furious opposition: last weekend protesters besieged the Duke's Chatsworth seat, blasting it with the sounds of opencast mining from a public address system mounted on the back of a lorry.
One site, 170 acres, is just next to the village of Heath, by junction 29 on the M1 motorway, and near the Elizabethan manor house, Hardwick Hall. The company, H J Banks, plans to build a commercial development there and says the opencasting is needed to prepare the ground, as otherwise there would be a danger of subsidence.
The second proposal - by Fitzwise, a Chesterfield-based company - would excavate two million tons of coal from a square mile of green belt land some six miles to the North East at Breck near the villages of Staveley, Eckington and Barrow Hill. After the mining was over the vast hole would be filled with rubbish for 19 years and then "restored" to agricultural land, complete with a 100 acre lake for recreation and wildlife. During operations, both rent and royalties would be paid to the Chatsworth Estate.
Yesterday Robin Maynard, local campaigns director of Friends of the Earth, called on the Duke to oppose the opencasting proposals or to "stand down" as Vice President of CPRE. He added: "It seems complete hypocrisy publicly to support countryside conservation whilst at the same time allowing hundreds of hectares of your own land to be dug up."
In fact the Duke did write to the CPRE suggesting it might consider his position as Vice-President in the light of the proposals. But - although the CPRE has in the past inveighed against "powerful forces" behind the expansion of opencasting who "must be resisted" - Fiona Reynolds, its director, said yesterday that the pressure group did not take the suggestion any further.
She added that she went to visit the Duke to explain that although the CPRE was very seriously concerned about opencasting, it did not oppose it in all circumstances.
Mr Tim Sander, campaign director of opencast mining for Chesterfield Friends of the Earth, who was involved in last week's demonstration at Chatsworth, said the Duke was "a greedy old soul".
But Mr Roger Wardle, agent of the Chatsworth Estate, retorted: "People like him say things like that, but I could not imagine anything further from the truth." He added that there was "no conflict" between the plans and the Duke's conservationists beliefs, and that the ultimate decision on whether to give the go ahead lay with the local councils.Reuse content