My community have been fighting the threat of opencast coal extraction for over 30 years. In that time, we’ve won three public inquiries.
Protesters are being evicted from a camp set up to block a mining company from beginning work on a new open cast coal mine in the Pont Valley, County Durham.
The camp was set up in March by local residents and anti-coal protesters to block Banks Mining from beginning work on the mine.
The company has taken on an existing planning permission for the mine, granted to UK Coal in June 2015. It plans to mine around 50,000 tonnes of coal from the site, with operations ending in 2021. Following the mining, it says it will restore the land, creating a nature reserve and parkland area.
Injured or killed
The company has until 3 June this year to complete construction of an access road to the site. The protesters were forced to move their original camp at the end of March after the landowner obtained a court order against them, but set up instead on the land where Banks needs to build the access road.
Around a dozen protesters have taken up position in treehouses, tunnels, and a caravan, locking themselves to structures to prevent their removal. The tunnels are unsupported, raising fears that people in them could be injured or even killed during the eviction.
Anne Harris, from Pont Valley Protection Camp, said: “There are people in tunnels under this camp and entrance to the site. Any attempt to bring on machinery to evict could result in the collapse of the tunnels and people being killed.”
She added: “The police and bailiffs have moved both camps. Two people have been arrested – the person on the tripod and one of the people on 'a lock on' [a technique used by protesters to make it difficult to remove them from their place of protest]. The police haven’t cleared the tunnels or the treehouse yet.”
Great crested newts, which are protected by law, were found at the site earlier this week, confirming the results of surveys previously carried out by UK Coal. “A wildlife crime will happen if this site goes ahead,” Harris said.
Another campaigner, June Davison, who lives in nearby Dipton village, said: "My community have been fighting the threat of opencast coal extraction for over 30 years. In that time, we’ve won three public inquiries, and three inspectors have agreed that protecting the Pont Valley is important.”
A spokesman from Banks Mining declined to comment on the protest, saying it was a matter for the police.
The police temporarily closed the A692 by the camp during the eviction, which they said was to ensure the safety of the protesters, the contractors and the police while carrying out the eviction.
In a video posted on Twitter, acting inspector Dave Clark of Durham Police, said: “We’re here to remove the protesters and allow them to protest at another site further down the road.”
Protesters from Coal Action Network want the government to revoke planning permission for the mine, arguing that circumstances have changed since it was granted. In November 2015, the government pledged to phase out coal-fired generation of electricity by 2025.
Last month, communities secretary Sajid Javid refused another project proposed by Banks Mining, for an open-cast coal mine near Druridge Bay in Northumberland. He overturned the recommendations of the planning inspector to grant approval, saying that the project’s impact on climate change was too severe.
However, on Wednesday this week, Banks Mining announced that it would challenge the government’s decision at the High Court, calling it “perverse”, and questioning its interpretation of planning policy for coal mines. The company argues that domestically-mined coal is still needed to prevent the UK being reliant on importing it from countries such as Russia.
Meanwhile, the UK has experienced 55 consecutive hours this week without coal producing any electricity, according to energy company Drax’s “Electric insights” website, beating the previous coal-free period of 40 hours, set last October.
James Thornton, chief executive of legal campaigners ClientEarth, said: “As if we needed any more proof, the UK has moved beyond coal. The more coal-free days we see, the better it is for people’s health and for the climate. The UK has promised to be a world-leading example – it needs to continue powering past coal, investing in the right strategies and technologies to make the transition as easy as it can be.”
Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and the former deputy editor of the environmentalist. She can be found tweeting at @Cat_Early76.