Letter: Those qualified should produce the nation's coal

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The Independent Online
Sir: The tragedy befalling the UK coal industry was apparent to all in the field two years ago. When gas became the fuel of choice, the coal market had to shrink. By the end of 1990, it was clear the market would fall to about 50 million tonnes per year (mtpy) and British Coal Corporation's (BCC's) underground tonnage would collapse to about 25mtpy.

BCC has the statutory obligation to mine the nation's coal. Since it was given this right, the industry has declined from about 1,000 mines to 50. Throughout this period BCC has been able to control and regulate its competitors. It has the power to license all coal mining. This power may not always have been exercised for the greater good of the industry.

The Ryan Group's experience in South Wales is relevant.

Since 1984, the South Wales industry has declined from 27 to one BCC underground mine. During this time, we tried to reopen or continue mining six of these BCC mines. In Pentreclwydau, closed in 1968, we succeeded in obtaining a licence from BCC but only after two years of protracted negotiations. In the other five we never got to first base.

In 1985 we approached BCC with proposals to continue mining at Abertillery, Aberpergwm and Treforgan. We failed in each case. Abertillery's surface was required for a new road. It could have been diverted. Aberpergwm was to be developed for industrial units. Nothing has happened. Treforgan was required as a ventilation circuit for Blaenant. It need not have been and, in any event, in 1990, Blaenant was shut.

We were the only company to make an offer to BCC to license the reserves, purchase the surface facilities and continue mining. The offer was rejected because greater value was to be had by developing the surface property. This surface infrastructure has been demolished but no development has taken place.

We are now interested in continuing mining at Betws, scheduled for closure by year end. We were initially approached by the South Wales NUM on this endeavour and we have registered our interest with BCC.

The absurdity of all of this would reduce if the Ryan Group was not deemed a suitable company to mine these reserves. However, we are the largest private mining company in the UK. We produce more than 4mtpy for BCC as an opencast contractor, contributing about pounds 70m to BCC's annual profits. We also produce coal in the United States, Belgium and Poland, in total about 6mtpy, putting us in the top 30 coal mining companies world-wide.

Throughout this unhappy saga, I asked three energy ministers to intervene - Walker, Parkinson and Wakeham. All responded that the decision was a commercial matter for BCC. Indeed, politicians may now be powerless to reverse the decline. All who have jumped on the emotional coal bandwagon, an easy leap in the current slump, should be reminded that the collapse of coal was easily seen two years ago. Why did they not care when it counted?

If any good is to come out of the reviews due to take place, it will be the conclusion that all qualified responsible companies should be allowed to mine and sell the nation's coal. How this new framework is established is far more important than who is to buy BCC. Before this happens, it is irresponsible for any company to raise expectations of dramatic rescue attempts.

Only when there is the freedom to mine coal will justice be done to the British coal reserves, the finest in all Europe. Only then will justice be done to the great national asset, the country's miners.

Yours faithfully,

CRISPIAN HOTSON

Chief Executive

Ryan Group Ltd

Cardiff

21 October

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