Parliament and Politics: British Coal 'neglecting threatened pits': Chairman faces questions after independent mining engineers say management is failing to keep promise to preserve the fabric of collieries

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PROMISES made to Parliament and the courts to maintain collieries threatened by closure have been broken by British Coal's neglect of coalfaces, according to inspections by independent mining engineers.

Members of the Commons select committee investigating the 31-pit closure programme will today raise allegations of coalface neglect and deterioration when they question Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, and Neil Clarke, chairman of British Coal.

British Coal denies the 'fabric' of any pit has been jeopardised in breach of commitments it made to Mr Justice Hidden's review. Production could resume, British Coal claims, if the outcome of the review and the Commons inquiry reversed the closure programme.

When the coal unions went to the High Court to challenge the abrupt announcement of pit closures, Bert Wheeler, British Coal's deputy chairman, said: 'British Coal will approach these consultations with a genuinely open mind. The fabric of the mines will be preserved so that if, at the end of the period of statutory consultation, it is decided to keep any or all of these collieries open, that will be possible.'

British Coal continues to claim that deterioration of coalfaces will not affect final decisions.

At Silverhill colliery, Nottinghamshire, coal worth pounds 16m may already have been lost because British Coal has refused to carry out remedial work on Y9s coalface. Serious deterioration on the face was first reported a week after Mr Heseltine told the Commons that British Coal must not prejudice the outcome of the 'genuine consultation' about the future of all 31 mines.

Major repairs will be needed if Cotgrave colliery, Nottinghamshire, is to resume production from 63s face. British Coal has not taken remedial action where part of the roof has sunk and the floor risen, limiting access along a roadway now only one metre high - below the minimum allowed by mines regulations.

At the two-pit Trentham complex, Stoke-on-Trent, unions have condemned their consultative meetings with British Coal as 'an absolute con'. Management has refused to complete the last 15 yards of preparation of a face that promises highly profitable production.

Joe Wills, National Union of Mineworkers area secretary, said: 'British Coal may be able to kid a judge, they may be able to kid an MP, but they can't kid a miner.

'I do not think British Coal have any intention of beginning production again.'

At Parkside colliery, the last pit in Lancashire, the floor of W31s face has risen to within two feet of the roof this week, threatening a build-up of dangerous gases. The face could be saved by a team of 20 men cutting about three yards of coal every three days. Only 70 men have applied for redundancy; the rest are clocking on, but are then sent home on basic pay.

Silverhill's problems are the most pressing. A major fall in the middle of the coalface buried the coal cutting machine on 7 October, a week before the pit was included among the 10 listed for immediate closure.

Mr Wheeler said the face could return to production within four weeks. But the Independent has obtained reports which suggest British Coal has either failed to appreciate the seriousness of the damage, or misled the court.

Alan Dobbs, an independent mining engineer who, like Mr Wheeler, is a Fellow of the Institution of Mining Engineers, inspected the face on 28 October on behalf of the Silverhill unions.

'Six weeks' work would have put this face back into full production. However, since remedial work ceased, the face has deteriorated rapidly,' Mr Dobbs said.

'If work is not commenced on this face to clear the fall. . . it will be an impossible task to produce coal with ever increasing costs and time and, of course, it will be harder to work in safety.'

By 16 November, a further report estimated that up to eight weeks' work would be needed to repair Y9s.

Mr Dobbs reported again on 16 November. 'British Coal are failing to keep the fabric of the mine,' he said.

'If there is a possibility of Silverhill staying open, Y9s is a classic case of the need to advance the face by producing coal. It would take eight to ten weeks of hard, costly and dangerous work to get Y9s back into production. British Coal's argument that the men are in such a state of mind that their concentration would be affected, leading to possible serious accidents if they attempted to clear the fall, is, in my opinion, a load of rubbish.

'Silverhill men are experienced in this type of recovery work and are champing at the bit to get their pit back into production. At the time of British Coal sending the men home (after 13 October), the fall on Y9s was within two to three days of being cleared.'

The condition of coalfaces like Y9s at Silverhill may gain extra importance if pits without a long-term future are operated for between 12 and 18 months to win all their easily recoverable coal.

Richard Caborn, chairman of the Commons trade and industry select committee, yesterday urged Mr Heseltine to broaden the scope of the Government's review to consider whether such coal should be mined.

'There is evidence that some of the collieries which may not have a long-term future could produce coal for sale on to the world market at competitive prices,' Mr Caborn said. 'It would seem to make sense, not least because the communities affected would have a breathing space before collieries closed, and valuable coal would be mined.'

(Photograph omitted)

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