Acquitted coal mine protester speaks out against UK legal system

| 16th August 2018

Campaigners being evicted from the mining site near Dipton, County Durham

Protect Pont Valley
A protester acquitted last week of trespassing on the Bradley coal mine site in County Durham has spoken exclusively to The Ecologist. ALEXANDRA HEAL reports

"It seems completely contradictory that the law will protect a species but it’s not going to protect the ecosystem that that species survives in."

One of the protesters acquitted last week of trespassing on a new coal mine site in County Durham has spoken out against the legal system that protects designated animal species but fails to protect the climate.

Sarah Johnson was found not guilty of aggravated trespass along with seven other protesters, after the group argued they had been fighting to prevent a wildlife crime against a newt species classified as endangered by European law.

“It’s really bittersweet,” Johnson said of the outcome, “because the law serves to protect this species as it should, but when it comes to the climate - that Banks Group is directly affecting by mining coal that will be burnt - that’s not protected. If we had argued for climate change, we probably wouldn’t have won.”

Residential camp

Banks Group, the company behind the mine, said it had found no great crested newts in ecological surveys taken over a number of years, but the protesters claimed to have found one of the protected amphibians on the site.

“Of course, the great crested newt is something I strongly care about and that’s why I was there, but it seems completely contradictory that the law will protect a species but it’s not going to protect the ecosystem that that species survives in. That goes across species,” Johnson said.

“If we are trying to protect these species then we should be trying to protect the climate even more so.”

Protect Pont Valley protesters after their acquittal
Protect Pont Valley members after the acquittal

Protesters, calling themselves the Protect Pont Valley group, set up a residential camp in February. Johnson, who graduated from the University of Sussex with a degree in history and philosophy last summer, got involved with the campaign after reflecting on how to put her ideas surrounding the environment into reality.

“I’ve been interested in environmentalism for a really long time, since I was a kid. I remember watching the news when they were talking about global warming and it terrified me,” she said.

Nature reserve

Her turn to direct action resulted from exasperation with other campaign methods. “I wrote letters, I signed petitions religiously, and nothing’s changing. Yes there’ve been some wins, but we’re still going in the direction of complete climate breakdown and ecocide.”

She added: “For me, if I can actually stop that act [of extracting coal] in reality, in that moment, that is so important. 

"I’ve lost a lot of faith in the possibilities of government bringing in the needed legislation, or companies actually taking responsibility for their actions and giving reparations to the countries or people they are affecting through fossil fuels, clothes or agriculture.”

Protect Pont Valley
The group handing in a petition to the then local government secretary, Sajid Javid

The protesters were evicted in April. Some, including Johnson, were arrested after locking themselves onto platforms, trees and equipment.

Banks Group plans to extract 500,000 tonnes of coal from the mine, which it says will bring 30 jobs to the area. The company has committed itself to planting a nature reserve on the site after finishing operations in 2021.

Restraining order

Johnson said she wasn’t feeling overly hopeful about what impact, if any, last week’s judgement would have on the future of the Bradley mine. She says the pond where the great crested newt was found has already been destroyed. Mining operations began at the start of summer.

“It’s a really funny feeling going through this whole very long process of getting arrested, waiting for the trial, and going through the trial.

"Then you get found not guilty and it feels like it should be a really amazing moment. But we don’t know how much it actually is going to change,” Johnson said.

“I’m always slightly overly pessimistic on these things, about how much we can change, especially when everything seems to be on the side of the extractivist industry.”

Despite this, she plans to carry on campaigning - although she doesn’t plan on breaking a restraining order imposed at the trial that prevents the acquitted eight from going near the site.

Applying pressure

“We’ve had a series of setbacks but carry on going,” she said.

The Protect Pont Valley group have planned a skill-sharing event and a demonstration for September, but their work against the wider extraction industry may be cut out.

Banks is currently appealing a rejection by Sajid Javid, the former local government secretary, of planning permission for an open cast mine in Northumberland. Javid turned down the proposal due to the impact it would have on climate change.

Johnson's experiences at the Bradley site do not seem to have put her off the challenge.

“I hope we can continue the campaign and continue applying pressure, and hopefully make sure no other open cast sites [go ahead]. Even if we can’t stop this one, it could be the last open cast coal site in the UK." 

This Author

Alexandra Heal is a freelance journalist. She has written for the Guardian, the i, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and DeSmog UK. She tweets at @alexandraheal.

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