The 43-acre digging zone in the Gwenlais valley, near Llandeilo, Dyfed, includes 13 acres of woodland designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The importance of the area increased with the discovery, four years ago, of Britain's only known turlough, a 52ft self-generating lake.
Dr Greg Carson, conservation officer of the Wild Life Trust, said mining in the area would be 'devastating' for the turlough, perhaps draining it altogether. 'There's no doubt we'll fight this threat to a very important and sensitive area, possibly in the High Court.'
The Government's decision, announced by John Redwood, Secretary of State for Wales, follows one of Britain's longest and most bitterly-contested duels between a consortium of green lobbyists and the quarrying company, Alfred McAlpine.
McAlpine's original claim, to work some 490 acres of the Gwenlais valley near its existing quarries at Cilyrychen and Glangwenlais, was rejected after a seven-day public inquiry last year. The company's ambition was based on an Interim Development Order (IDO), loosely worded and marked with vague arrows, granted nearly 50 years ago.
The inquiry's 200-page report, confirmed now by Mr Redwood, concluded that the original IDO, issued in 1948, was valid but only for a comparatively small area around the old quarry sites. The Welsh Office emphasised yesterday that Mr Redwood's decision was based on a technical definition of the IDO, not on the merits of the quarrying proposal.
Conservationists immediately attacked Mr Redwood for apparently side- stepping the overriding issues of protecting irreplaceable wildlife sites. Tim Shaw, of Friends of the Earth and a leading member of the Campaign for the Protection of the Gwenlais valley, said: 'It's just ridiculous that in this day and age, an ancient planning consent can be used to destroy one of the country's finest remnants of environmental habitat and heritage. It just strengthens our resolve to fight this decision every step of the way.'
Dr Carson said: 'The Government has given a licence to develop under an old IDO when it knows full well there's no way planning consent would be given for such an intrusion in today's more enlightened circumstances.'
The anti-McAlpine campaign, spanning six years, has combined shrewd environmental detective work with the revival of colourful legends. One figure to emerge from the mists of Welsh mythology was Owen the Red Hand, an ancient warlord whose bones were found in the valley in 1813. Owen was reputed to be sleeping until aroused by a trumpet blast to drive the enemy from Wales.
McAlpine countered by warning that 40 local jobs would go if permission to extend its workings was not granted. The issue has led to clashes between quarry workers and green activists.
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