Mining consultants raise doubt over eight pits' survival

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ONLY TWO of the 10 most vulnerable collieries on British Coal's hit-list may be viable in the long term, according to a confidential report prepared for the Government.

If Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, accepts the findings of a study by the US mining consultants John T Boyd, up to 1,700 jobs could be saved but nearly 6,000 pitmen would still be made redundant.

Grimethorpe colliery near Barnsley, South Yorkshire, was seen by Boyd to be the most viable of the pits. In the words of the consultants it did not meet British Coal's own 'closure criteria'. Markham Main, near Armthorpe, also in South Yorkshire, could have a future provided there was an improvement in its 'appalling labour relations'.

Boyd advises Mr Heseltine that Betws Colliery, in south-west Wales, could have a limited life. Unions are believed to be interested in a buy-out. Boyd says Taff Merthyr in Mid Glamorgan may have been closed prematurely.

The DTI commissioned Boyd to investigate the viability of the 10 pits on the advice of the High Court judge Lord Justice Glide well, who suggested the company could provide an 'independent' element in the pits review.

Last week, the unions claimed at the High Court that British Coal was not consulting fully over the 10 pits, although the judgment was that such action by the unions was 'premature' given that negotiations over the future of the collieries had not broken down.

Boyd had already been employed to investigate the future of 21 other collieries that British Coal wanted to close. The consultants believe there is a future for between six and 13 of those pits.

The latest Boyd report will be denounced by unions because they are sceptical about the consultants' independence. Critics will argue the report was based on prices in a 'rigged market'.

A spokesman for British Coal said: 'Boyd's, as one would expect, acknowledge that the profitability of any operation depends on there being a market for the product it produces.'

The statement underlines growing fears in the industry that the Government will not act to find a market for the extra coal sales needed to save the 31 pits.

The electricity watchdog, Offer, has approved the 'dash for gas' in electricity generation, making it hard for the Government to cut back gas plans in favour of coal.

Neil Clarke, British Coal chairman, has repeatedly called for a cut in nuclear power or gas rather than the displacement of some coal imports or opencast coal. However, even the Trade and Industry Select Committee said it saw no economic case for reducing nuclear power generation and the Government would be faced with problems in Europe and be liable for massive compensation if it tried to stop electricity imports from France.

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