It is the world's poorest who are most affected by air pollution and climate change ... Each and every mine contributes unacceptably to global warming and air pollution. The whole world is watching these decisions. Please do not fail us!
Representatives of over 50 groups from 23 countries, many in the Global South, who are opposing coal mining and working for climate justice have signed an open letter opposing new UK opencast coal mines, in solidarity with local communities.
The letter, addressed to the Planning Inspectorate and Derbyshire County Council, asks for two opencast coal mine applications to be rejected, as
"English law enables applications to be refused on the basis that it is not in the local, national or international interest to approve development, as is the situation in these cases."
The solidarity letter has been signed by numerous campaigners from Global South communities in a variety of countries including Indonesia, the Philippines, India, Vietnam, South Africa, Kenya, Peru and the nations of Central America.
It comes as the UK's Planning Inspectorate is hearing the appeal for UK coal miner Hargreaves' application to build a new coal mine at Field House, West Rainton, County Durham, a process under way since last week.
Hargreaves' application to mine 500,000 tonnes of coal using opencast methods was refused in June 2014. The company's plans have been vociferously resisted by local people in the area who formed the Stop the Opencast in Pittington and West Rainton group in opposition to the application. The group are now actively campaigning for the original decision to reject the mine to be upheld.
The second coal mining application opposed by the letter's signatories is waiting to be heard by Derbyshire County Council, for a site named Hilltop. The coal company, Provectus, is making an application to mine 175,000 tonnes of coal from the site, which sits within 200 metres of 500 houses. Led by the Hilltop Action Group, local people are opposing the company's application.
Both communities have a history of coal mining, and campaigners include ex-deep pit miners. They are united in their concern that if the applications put forward by Hargreaves and Provectus are approved the people living in the areas surrounding the sites will suffer from adverse health effects and loss of beloved landscapes.
At risk: human health, global climate
The experience of other UK communities reveals that the typical impacts of opencast coal mining include a reduction in their access to the natural world, destruction of landscape and biodiversity, increased pollution from diesel fumes and the release of toxic particulates.
These tiny particulates are highly dangerous as they are able to enter the lungs, causing a large array of health problems for people in the coal-affected areas, including various cancers, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and hypothyroidism.
The fears of local people in Co. Durham and Derbyshire are echoed and corroborated internationally by the direct or observed experience of many of the signatories to the solidarity letter.
"We are members of communities suffering as a direct result of opencast coal mining and related infrastructure or from countries most at risk from climate change, or of organisations working in solidarity with those affected", they say.
"We would not wish on anyone else what we have had to put up with ourselves... in addition to the loss of lives and livelihoods as a result of climate change, coal mining contributes to the air pollution which killed 7 million people worldwide in 2012."
Despite the determination of the companies to proceed, recent victories for local communities over coal projects means there is significant cause for hope that the concerted opposition to both projects means they will not go ahead.
In August this year Caerphilly County Borough Council voted to refuse coal miner Miller Argent's application to mine 6 million tonnes of coal from the Rhymney valley in Wales as part of the proposed Nant Llesg project. Miller Argent also operate the UK's largest opencast coal mine, Ffos-y-Fran, on an adjacent site.
At the planning hearing for Nant Llesg, impassioned local residents spoke out about the dust, noise and disturbance caused by the Ffos-y-Fran mine and cited the incompatibility of the new mine with Wales's climate targets as key reasons to reject it.
Presenting their concerns over how much local employment would be lost to the mine and the damage to local landscapes and wildlife, the community made a compelling case and won a critical victory.
Though Miller Argent are expected to appeal, the decision to reject the Nant Llesg mine has energised communities like those in Co. Durham and Derbyshire to continue their struggle despite drawn out application and appeal processes.
Mining new coal is not in the UK's national interest
At the national level the UK's commitment to making coal history remains in question. In February 2015 the coalition government pledged to phase out 'unabated' coal, burned without the use of the highly criticised Carbon Capture and Storage technology (CCS). However no deadline has since been set.
For communities on the front line of coal extraction, this phase out cannot come too soon. But experts say existing policies are inadequate to achieve this goal and more stringent measures have not been forthcoming.
Critics have argued that there is ample reason for the UK to begin the process of abandoning coal in earnest. Coal's value has slumped dramatically on the world market and new EU emissions legislation is hurting an industry reliant on ageing, highly polluting infrastructure.
Also renewable alternatives to coal are becoming more affordable and popular with investors as they continue to divest from fossil fuels, to the tune of $2.6 trillion so far, and reinvest in green energy.
There are currently 25 opencast coal mines operating in the UK plus one significant deep mine, Kellingley Colliery, which is due to close on 10th December 2015. Even established industry players such as Hargreaves, which is active at six coal mine sites in Scotland, have had to radically reduce coal output and their number of employees as the price of coal has plummeted on the world market.
These mines feed the UK's 13 ageing coal-fired power stations, three of which have recently announced that they will have to close in March 2016. In order to fulfil EU legislation in the form of the Industrial Emissions Directive, a number of other stations must make a significant expenditure to upgrade their air pollution controls for Nitrous Oxide (NOx) and Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) or close within 17,500 hours of operation after the end of this year.
Combined with the Government's slashing of subsidies for renewable energy sources in the last budget, the UK's continuing reliance on coal in the face of worsening odds has drawn stinging criticism, even from within Whitehall and the UK's business community.
Last month Lord Deben, the chairman of the UK committee on climate change and a former Conservative environment minister went on record to say that the UK is on course to miss its statutory climate change targets. He accused the government of hurting the UK further by confusing investors over the country's commitment to the low-carbon economy powered by renewables that must be our future.
What is now in the UK's own interest, a rapid phase-out of coal, is also in the interest of UK communities like those at Field House and Hilltop and whole nations in the Global South. They cannot wait for apathetic governments and wealthy countries like the UK to make slow changes. As the signatories to the letter say,
"Time is running short ... rich nations like the UK must play their part and completely stop mining and burning coal."
Mining new coal is not in the global interest
Coal burnt in UK power stations is predominantly extracted from four countries, including the UK. In 2014 42% of the coal burnt in the UK was imported from Russia, 26% from the USA, and 23% from Colombia. Just 23% was mined in the UK.
Of the groups who signed the letter in solidarity with UK communities in Co. Durham and Derbyshire, many are opposing coal projects that export to the UK or have other UK connections.
In their home nations mines financed by UK pension funds and investments, operated by UK-listed mining companies, and producing coal to be burnt in UK power stations are linked to paramilitary killings, cultural genocide and the destruction of entire ecosystems.
Vladislav Tannagashev, is one such signatory, putting pen to paper as Chair of the Myski municipal community-based organization Revival of Kazas and Shor People. The Shor are an indigenous group from Siberia, Russia, who are facing cultural genocide as coal companies take over their land.
Nine predominantly Shor villages in the Kuzbass region, Russia's prime coal producing area, have been destroyed by coal mining to date. The UK is the second largest export market for Russian coal, making it highly likely that coal mined from beneath Shor land is being burned in UK power stations.
The impacts of global climate change on the world's poorest people and the negative contribution of coal, one of the world's dirtiest fossil fuels, is also extensively referenced by the letter's signatories as a reason to stop further extraction of coal anywhere in the world.
"It is the world's poorest who are most affected by air pollution and climate change ... We strongly believe that each and every mine contributes unacceptably to global warming and air pollution. By international standards neither of these (the Field House and Hilltop) coal mines are large, but every one impacts on our way of life. 82% of all known coal reserves need to stay in the ground to stay within a 2 degree global temperature rise."
Last month the UK Government announced its plan to provide £5.8 billion in climate aid to Global South nations. Though this is a welcome sign, the signatories of the letter lay down a more radical challenge to the UK, its institutions, authorities and people.
As well as throwiing money at the problem, the campaigners say, the UK must also lead by example on climate change at the local, national and international levels. This means keeping new UK coal in the ground, starting with Field House and Hilltop.
"The whole world is watching these decisions", they conclude. "Please do not fail us."
The solidarity letter was co-ordinated by Coal Action Network, London Mining Network, The Gaia Foundation, the Yes to Life, No to Mining Network and the European Stop Mad Mining Project. These groups work to support communities resisting mining and protect the rights of sustainable and indigenous communities across the world. The full letter and full list of signatories can be read online on the Coal Action Network website.
- Add your support to those campaigning against the Hilltop application. Hilltop Action Group are asking for letters of objection to be sent to the council. Send yours.
- Join London Mining Network and two Colombian visitors from communities resisting mining on Thursday 22nd October for a protest outside coal mining giant BHP Billiton's AGM, followed by an evening talk on the impact of UK extractive industries in Colombia, co-organised with War on Want and Colombia Solidarity Campaign.
Anne Harris is a campaigner for the Coal Action Network.
Hal Rhoades is Advocacy and Communications officer for The Gaia Foundation and European Regional Coordinator for the Yes to Life, No to Mining Network.