The new coal age

| 3rd June 2008
The coal industry of last century is the prime reason Merthyr Tydfil has the worst health in the UK. Now, with more coal and cash to carve from one of Europe’s largest opencast mines, developers and the local authority are back to finish the job. Words and photographs by Amy Scaife

Wind turbines could have been standing here, turning in the strong winds streaming over the hills. But on the grounds of being noisy and unsightly, Merthyr Tydfil council overturned a planning application for a wind farm on the site of what is to be one of the largest opencast coalmines in Europe. Explosives blasting twice a day, massive machinery will then dig and scrape out an estimated 150 million tonnes of rock to reach the 10.8 million tonnes of coal buried here. With the nearest homes a mere 36m away and four schools within 600m, Merthyr’s residents must wonder how their council defines ‘noisy’ and ‘unsightly’. The £1 per tonne of coal (£10.8 million in total) the council will earn in royalties makes it quite clear where its motivation lies.

The site of the coal mine stretches over 1,000 acres, with the hole eventually reaching 200m down. But according to the council and Miller Argent, the consortium behind this great hole in the ground, it isn’t actually an opencast coalmine – it is the ‘Ffos-y- Fran Land Reclamation Scheme’, which will ‘restore 367 ha of derelict land’ and ‘go a long way towards creating a better and safer environment for the local community’. While some of the land was derelict, with spoil heaps and disused mineshafts being used as waste dumps, most was rough pasture and moorland, an open common where people walked and animals grazed and a much-needed habitat for lapwings, curlews and the protected great crested newt. The derelict land could have been cleaned up within three years and paid for by European Objective One funding.

Calling this a land reclamation scheme overturns any rules stipulated by the MTAN – Minerals Technical Advice Note for Coal. An opencast coalmine anywhere else in the UK needs a minimum buffer zone of 500m between it and the nearest home. Had this rule been enforced, this mine would not have gone ahead.

Merthyr Tydfil has the poorest health in the UK, with nearly half the population suffering from a chronic disease. Residents collected 10,000 signatures opposing the mine and mounted a legal challenge that won a short-lived victory in the High Court. Pensioner Elizabeth Condron, who was eligible for legal aid, led the challenge. Since then she has endured anonymous death threats, bottles smashed against her home and the shooting of her beloved dog, and has now installed CCTV to protect herself. ‘People in this town say I am either very brave or very stupid,’ she says. ‘I pretend I am brave.’ The council, while allowing Miller Argent to recoup its legal costs from royalties due to the council, has since applied to have Elizabeth’s legal aid stopped.

While local and national government loudly proclaim a commitment to reducing emissions, they aid and abet corporations in the short-sighted pursuit of profit. It’s a profit paid for by the health and quality of life of the local community, the destruction of the surrounding environment and by wider society due to the climate-changing impact of an estimated 30 million tonnes of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. And to think, this could have been a wind farm.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2008

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