Newcastle may see return to coal mining

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The Independent Online

The first coal to be mined in Newcastle upon Tyne for more than 50 years could be dug on the site of a 21st century science park.

Up to 60,000 tonnes of coal lie below what was the Scottish and Newcastle Breweries plant, in the shadow of St James's Park football stadium, where the 24-acre Science Central site is to be developed.

The area was mined extensively in the 18th century and the various workings underneath make present-day building work perilous.

Rather than pump in 50,000 tonnes of cement to stabilise the plot, it has been suggested the top layer of rubble is removed, the coal extracted, then recapped by returning the surface material.

Building work on the environmentally friendly development could then begin.

The science park has already created headlines by drilling a geothermal borehole which could heat thousands of homes.

Mining expert Professor Paul Younger of Newcastle University, said: "Unfortunately, our forebears did not leave the site in a condition that gives us full freedom of choice over how to use the ground.

"The site is underlain by shallow mine-workings at several levels.

In fact there are more workings at more levels here than in just about anywhere else in the country.

"In these old mines, more than half of the original coal has been left behind, as was the old style of mining back then where it had to be left in place to keep the roof up.

"These old workings are in various states of partial collapse, and those in the shallowest two seams have particular potential to damage future buildings on the site.

"A further risk - though thankfully less likely - is that of the remaining coal catching fire.

"This happened in the shallowest seam in the Fenham area in the 1700s, and fires raged across the city for 50 years."

Though some may think coal is not a green option, it is better than using cement to stabilise the site, the professor said.

"We really don't want to do this because cement production is one of the most carbon-intensive industries and the carbon footprint associated with this would be significant," he said.

"The CO2 equivalent for this volume of cement is in excess of 330,000 tonnes of CO2.

"The coal itself, if taken and used, would release about 160,000 tonnes of CO2 - less than half that produced by the cement.

"Removing the coal also eliminates any future risk of coal seam fires."

If planners give the go-ahead, the coal would be the first to be extracted since Newcastle's last pit closed in 1956.

The coal, which lies close to the surface, would be removed within 30 weeks.