Private colliers find small can be profitable: More and more pitmen are making a living in mines outside the confines of British Coal or at heritage projects. Steve Boggan reports

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The Independent Online
THE HORSE has been stabled for the night and the heavy steel door padlocked across the hole in the side of the mountain. Steam rises from the blackened backs of David Watkins and Eurwyn Thomas as they trudge through the mud down to the ramshackle shower building at the end of another shift at Pentwyn No 3 drift mine.

These men are part of a growing army of colliers who have turned their backs on the vast operations of British Coal, often because it turned its back on them.

More than 170 private mines are thought to be operating in Britain, many employing fewer than 10 men who work the way colliers worked 50 years ago; with picks, shovels and horses.

In 1975, the output from private mines was 900,000 tonnes. Last year it reached 3.4 million - more than a million tonnes more than the output recorded shortly after the coal industry was nationalised in 1947.

No one knows whether there is a direct correlation between British Coal job losses and the growth in private mining, but many in South Wales, where private mining is most prevalent, have their suspicions. 'There are about 100 small mines in South Wales and I'm sure that's more than there used to be,' Mr Thomas said.

At 38, he has worked in private mines for 12 years, joining the Pentwyn mine at Godre'r-graig, in the Swansea Valley, West Glamorgan, several years ago. 'I never worked for the NCB (or British Coal) because the money was never as good as in private mines. A lot of the coal board miners are trying to get into private mines now, because that's where the work is, but they'll have a hard time getting in. Private mines are different; you work with a shovel all day. We have no machinery here, just 23 men and six or seven horses.

'It's a completely different type of mining from the way coal board miners are used to doing it. We're colliers, we dig the coal by hand. They're miners, they have machines to do it for them.'

Mr Thomas and Mr Watkins spearhead the assault on the Pentwyn coal face, hacking out coal and mudstone which is carried out of the mine in metal tubs pulled by the horses. They earn pounds 5 per tonne each and estimate that they double the wages of their British Coal colleagues. The mine produces 300 tonnes a week.

Despite its ramshackle appearance, the men say conditions in the mine are the best they have enjoyed - even during Mr Watkins's six years with the NCB. There is a close-knit workforce, healthy, regularly inspected horses and high safety standards.

'You find that people in private mines are a lot more safety conscious because they have themselves to look after, rather than a big organisation doing it for them,' he said.

'People often have a romantic view of small mines like this. The plain truth is that it's bloody hard graft, but we do it from choice and get well paid for our work.'

The miners at Pentwyn believe more private mines will grow as British Coal closes pits. But David Cooper, the chairman of the Small Mines Federation of Great Britain, said further growth will be impossible as long as the market is 'rigged' against private coal as much as BC suffers from a rigged market in favour of gas.

Small mines supply coal for local domestic consumption by the sackload, and to the power generators either directly or in small co-operatives. In order to operate, they must apply for a licence from BC, satisfying criteria on quality and safety, but they must also pay BC royalties on each tonne of coal, ranging from 40p a tonne for deep-mined coal, to pounds 5 a tonne for opencast coal.

'We are squeezed from that end but we are also treated unfairly when we sell to the generators,' Mr Cooper said. 'We can only sell to National Power and PowerGen at 88 per cent of the price paid to British Coal. We think this is grossly unfair in what is supposed to be a fair market. Quite simply, it is rigged against the private supplier.'

The Small Mines Federation believes the treatment of its members should be included in the select committee review of the coal industry. It has also applied to the European Court for a ruling.

Until there is a ruling on what is supposed to be free and open competition in the energy market, there will be no certain future for private mines like the Great Row colliery, in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire, which was considered uneconomic by the old NCB but which was turned around by private buyers.

'Our contract with National Power is due for renewal next March,' Peter Bennett, the drift mine's personnel manager, said. 'If they impose a price or a quantity that makes it impossible for us to continue producing, we have nowhere else to go.

'Despite the Government saying they were introducing competition to the industry, and even though we can produce coal cheaper than British Coal, we have no one to sell to except the companies in the duopoly.'

(Photographs omitted)