The coal mines' steady slide to oblivion

ON 13 OCTOBER last year Michael Heseltine announced that British Coal intended to close 31 deep coal mines with the loss of 30,000 jobs. Eight months later, as our map shows, the company has managed to halt production at 19 of those 31 mines. It has sacked, or announced the imminent redundancy of, almost 22,000 out of the original 30,000 workers, writes Mary Fagan.

The 12 'reprieved' mines on the original hit-list are undergoing 'market-testing' - but there is no market for their coal. The Government has done nothing to reduce the threat to coal posed by nuclear power and natural gas, and the electricity generators, National Power and PowerGen, show little desire to buy extra coal for their power stations.

Gerard McCloskey, a coal industry expert, said: 'I do not think that any of the 12 will be here at the start of the next financial year. There will come a time when the Government knows it can walk away from them.'

So what would be left? There are still 19 'core' deep mines that British Coal never sought to shut down. But are they safe? This year, British Coal is contracted to supply 40 million tonnes of coal to the electricity generators. Next year, the figure drops to 30 million. Industry sources expect that five or six of the 'core' mines will have to shut down as a result. Of the 48,000 miners and white-collar British Coal staff in work last November, perhaps fewer than one-third will keep their jobs.

Nor does privatisation offer much long-term hope. British Coal is offering mines which have ceased production to the private sector, but it is not clear how many of those will attract buyers who will work and develop the mines in the long term. Even where the mines are taken over, pressure to increase efficiency means that new operators may save few jobs. The sting in the tail is that, should mines leased to the private sector win the sales they need to survive, it would be yet more competition for what is left of British Coal.

While nothing changes in the market, British Coal is stacking up even more problems for the future in the shape of growing stockpiles. The 12 pits on reprieve are adding about one million tonnes a month to the company's existing mountain of around 11 million tonnes. National Power and PowerGen already hold more than 30 million tonnes (one reason why they are loath to buy more coal). Unless something happens to change the market for coal, the reprieve for the 12, while it lasts, could be disaster waiting to happen for other mines.

(Graphics omitted)

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