Protecting Pont Valley: meet the protesters fighting a new coal mine

| 28th March 2018
Pont Valley protestors
A judge has ordered the eviction of protestors occupying the site of a proposed new coal mine in County Durham. Local residents are putting up one last fight to try and stop the project. MAT HOPE reports

I realised that the majority of the view I was looking at was about to turn into a big black hole. It made me feel really sad. There was a big sense of loss.

You can't miss them. One, two, three… a dozen wind turbines turning steadily despite the light breeze.

Look southwest towards the rolling Pennine hills, and there they are, silvery white blades hidden against today's uncharacteristically bright sky. Look northeast towards Newcastle and there are more: some stationary, most turning, all giant symbols of how far this region, this country, the world, even, has come.

This article originally appeared on DeSmog UK.

Despite its history and reputation, this is not coal country anymore. The whole of England only produced 4.2 million tonnes of coal in 2016, according to the government’s latest figures an all time low. The figure for 2017 is expected to be lower still.

Realised the scale

This is what makes the prospect of a brand new 500,000 tonne opencast coal mine in the Pont Valley quite so baffling.

This may be England's “desolate” North. It may be the historic home of what was once a powerhouse industry. But in County Durham, in 2018, it's hard to fathom.

And the local residents I’ve come to meet feel much the same.

Thomas Davison, a woolen-jumpered 28 year old who has lived almost his whole life in High Stables, a community just metres from where the coal mine will be located, is already mourning the loss of his local beauty spot.

He tells me about how a few days before, he’d gone for a short walk and for the first time realised the scale of the proposed mine.

Defeated decades

“When you look at a map the area doesn’t look that big, but when you stand on the edge of it, it just seems so vast. And then I realised that the majority of the view I was looking at was about to turn into a big black hole.”

“It made me feel really sad. There was a big sense of loss,” he said.

That’s why he and handful of local residents have helped establish the Pont Valley protection camp a final stand against a project they thought was dead.

The matter has become urgent. Banks Mining, the company building the mine, has just secured the right to evict the protesters and push ahead with the project.

Now a coal mine that local residents thought they had defeated decades ago is about to blast its way into the heart of their community.

Protesters scrambling

A conflict that has been bubbling for decades is now being played out in weeks, even days.

The first application to open a coal mine at the Bradley site in Pont Valley was rejected in 1986. A second application was rejected in 2011. But following a three-year appeal process, permission was eventually granted in June 2015 to mining company UK Coal.

UK Coal went bust in 2014 following a major fire at the company’s largest mine in Daw Mill. The Bradley permission was subsequently taken on by Banks Group, which announced in January 2018 that it was trying to acquire the land rights to push ahead with the project.

Banks Group operates the nearby Shotton and Brenkley coal mines and claims to mine around one million tonnes of coal each year. The Shotton coal mine is situated on the Blagdon Estate and is owned by hereditary peer Matt Ridley, an advisor to climate science denial campaign group, the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF).

Permission to mine under the current license runs out on 3 June 2018, which is why Banks Group is rushing to start work and the protesters are scrambling to stop them.

A technicality

Many of the campaigners feel that Banks Group hasn’t had to follow due process since taking on the application. There’s a definite sense that the rug has been pulled from under their feet.

“We’ve been fighting for such a long time. You think you win, and then there’s another enquiry,” Thomas says.

“Then this January, out of nowhere, with no warning, we were told it was going to be happening. We didn’t have time to get together and organise.”

His neighbour, pink-haired Julie Triston, who arrives at the camp with her graduate daughter Zoe and their cat Pom Pom and a tent in hand to stay the night, echoes Thomas’s frustration.

She says it’s an unfair fight: “We won all of the public enquiries and then lost on a technicality. We’ve gone to all the enquiries and given up hours and hours of time to question paid experts. We’re doing our best against professionals.”

“These are people that don’t know the valley.”

Long term jobs

The campaigners are quick to point out just how much has changed since permission was granted in 2015.

Since then, the UK government has committed to phase out all coal power by 2025, 195 countries have signed up to the Paris Agreement to combat climate change, and demand for coal has plummeted.

In 2017, coal was used to generate just nine percent of the UK’s electricity - down about 80 percent since its peak in 2012. In contrast, wind power provided a record 11 percent of the UK’s electricity in 2017.

That makes the protestors sceptical of Banks Group’s claim the mine will create “dozens of new jobs” for the area.

Robyn Clogg is visiting a friend who like Thomas lives in High Stables. She grew up in a house that backed onto an opencast coal mine in nearby Burnhope. She doesn’t think what Banks Group is offering is enough to justify the mine:

“28 jobs, but for what? Why don’t Banks focus more on renewables and provide long term jobs? Mining here used to be a job for life, but it’s not anymore, and people don’t understand that.”

Climate commitments

“There is still respect for the mining industry around here, but it’s a false respect. It’s a respect for closed pit mining that took brave men’s lives. This is very different. There was skill in that. This is just stripping the land away. It’s why we now call it opencast extraction and don’t call it mining.”

“My mum said she used to not be able to put the laundry out for weeks at a time due to the dust. I just worry about what that will do to people’s lungs.”

A few days before I meet the protesters, the Communities Secretary Sajid Javid pulls the plug on another Banks Group project - a proposed coal mine near Druridge Bay, 35 miles north of Pont Valley.

More than once, the campaigners describe that decision as “great news”, saying they hope it sets a precedent to reject all new coal developments.

It certainly makes the decision to proceed with the Bradley mine look odd as Javid rejected the Druridge Bay proposal partially on the grounds that it didn’t fit with the UK’s climate commitments.

The protestors delivered a petition with 86,000 signatures to Javid in early March, hoping he might similarly scupper the Bradley proposal.

Locals and non-locals

“Sajid Javid still has the power to withdraw the permission for this site”, Julia points out. “We have to hang on to hope.”

But time is running out.

I visited the site the weekend after the police served the campers with eviction notices, and a couple of days before they were due in court. While still small, the camp was a hive of activity.

There was Bobby, hammering nails into wooden pallets to make benches ahead of the expected arrival of a large group of local residents the following day. Earlier, she and Jess built a new sleeping shelter to replace a tent that had collapsed - not for the first time - in the blistering winds that batter the hilltop site.

They are two of a small group of activists from out of town - about eight non-locals in total when I visited - who have come to help occupy the camp, and bring their experience to the Pont Valley campaign.

Sub-zero temperatures

“I don’t like this talk of separation between locals and non-locals”, Thomas complains. “People do talk about it, but we couldn’t exist without each other”.

He’s been running the camp’s Facebook page with one of a number of activists over from the long-running anti-coal mining protests in Germany’s Hambacher forest.

As we talk, a local couple arrive to deliver a red velvet sofa. It looks incredibly out of place amid the mud and improvised construction, but the campers are delighted to have something soft to relax on at last. It’s quickly decorated with a zebra-print throw and brown cushions.

Julia agrees that there is no antipathy between those that have lived in Pont Valley and fought this development for decades, and those that have come from further afield to help. The cooperative spirit was particularly strong when the camp was set up, just as the Beast from the East brought the UK’s most dramatic snowfall in years, she says:

“It’s been bitter up here. We set up in sub-zero temperatures. We’ve had 80-mile-an-hour winds. It’s been really, really, vicious”.

Looking bemusedly

“We couldn’t have done it without their support. It’s a symbiotic relationship between the camp and the local campaign”.

But this cooperative, collaborative, relationship is something Banks Group fails to recognise, according to protestors.

Banks Group did not respond to a request to comment on this story, but Lewis Stokes, the community liaison officer for the company, recently told local press that he was aware of “a small number of individuals, many of whom have travelled from outside the region” arriving to disrupt “legitimate business operations”.

Thomas vehemently disagrees with that characterisation.  “It’s frustrating when Banks say there’s no-one from the local community. It’s a completely false representation of what this is”.

“I never thought this many people would come to Dipton”, he says, looking bemusedly at the camp around him. “I’m really grateful”.

Local wildlife

The knowledge ‘the Hambachers’ have brought with them has been invaluable to make the camp a functional site, Julia says.

“I’ve never built a compost toilet before”, she adds with a wry smile, pointing to a blue tarpaulin up wind from the camp.

That compost toilet is described the following day as having “the best view of any toilet in the county” by Liam Carr, a local biology teacher. He is leading about 60 local residents on an hour-long ecology walk around the proposed mine boundary.

As we walk, he points out a particular type of lichen that acts as a “natural dust monitor” as it will die if it gets too choked, and describes the act of removing the hedgerows as like taking out the local birdlife’s bedroom, which previously sat conveniently close to their kitchen in the pond 50 metres to the east.

The mine will be “catastrophic” for the local wildlife, he later tells me, “in a word”.

Children of today

Every protestor I speak to has their own varied reasons for being here, but the sense that they are witnessing the final days of this beautiful, unspoilt, spot provokes the most emotional response.

Zoe Triston, Julia’s daughter, who has since moved to Oxford University and now works as an access officer helping others from her community apply to the institution, has particularly fond memories of her “free range” childhood.

Like Thomas, she has a glint in her eye as she describes the long walks, picnics, climbing trees in summer, and sledging in winter. Despite being the youngest campaigner I talk to - or perhaps because she’s still young enough to remember - she is the most angry about what the mine will take away from future generations.

She tells me she chose her Oxford college based on which had “the most grass I could walk all over”, saying she found lack of “wild space” in the city jarring at first.

“Where I grew up is integral to who I am”, she tells me. “It’s sad this isn’t going to exist for the children of today, and the children of the future.”

Roughly chopped

Like many I talk to, she’s extremely sceptical of Banks Groups’ promises to restore the land once mining has finished, 27 months after they begin.

“It’s all very superficial. You can’t restore this. It will never recover. It’s all very short-sighted”, she says.

Lee, a local ecology buff, who doesn’t want to give his last name, gestures towards each of his family members’ homes in the towns dotting the valley. He shares Zoe’s concerns.

“Banks’ strapline is ‘development with care’. It’s not development with care. Just look at the way they did these trees”, he tells me, sweeping his arm across the roughly chopped, disorganised piles of logs that have been cleared to make way for the mine’s access road.

He points to the reeds on the ground, “my Gran made her corsage from this”.

Future generations

Lee is devastated that the mine will destroy the local ecosystem. He hands me an A4 sheet that he’s distributing to help people identify different newts, toads, and frogs, to help them understand what they’ll lose if the mine goes ahead.

“We’re a bit silly around here. There’s people that walk here all the time but because we’ve seen it a hundred times before we don’t record it. So that’s what I’m doing now”.

He is moved to tears as he talks about the skylarks nesting, the dawn of spring, and the imminent arrival of the machinery to blast all this away.

Liam is similarly upset by the prospect of losing the countryside he grew up in, and that his daughters are now running in, wellies going calf-deep in the mud.

“It’s a wild magical place. And with developments like this, all you’re doing is denying future generations the chance to enjoy it like I did.”

Wider machinery

“Lots of species are protected, but there are also loads that are unprotected. For instance, there’s loads of Dog’s Vomit Slime Mold [a fungus].”

“Loads of people are saying ‘Save the Whale’, no-one campaigns to save Dog’s Vomit Slime Mold, do they?”

This humour hides barely contained anger and frustration, which is part of a deeper political struggle the Pont Valley campaign embodies. Zoe explains it eloquently:

“It’s not just about the wildlife, it’s also a point of principle. It’s about corporate greed. The system is set up to benefit those who make money out of natural resources.

“It’s not just the company itself, but the wider machinery. It’s about what we value as a society.”

Perched precariously

Liam likewise tells me this is as much about moving forward as a community, as protecting one particular spot.

“I don’t hate Banks or anything, they’re involved in renewables and housing. Coal isn’t the only thing they do. But it is by far the worst thing they do.”

“If they’re going to have a slogan that says ‘development with care’, this isn’t it. It just doesn’t match up with the values of what is a local company.”

“I’m not one of these protestors. I don’t have an ideological opposition to all fossil fuels. Both my grandads were miners. But we should be moving on from this. Coal is our heritage, not our future.”

And it’s that ‘bigger picture’ that continues to drive Thomas. It’s what led him to sleep in a tent perched precariously up a tree when the camp was set up in the snow.

Stop coal

“When I was younger I was sad my playground was being destroyed. Now I’m older I see the bigger picture around carbon dioxide emissions and climate change”, he says.

“Regardless of what happens, it’s a win because we’ve added to the message that you need to stop coal”.

“We still hope for the big win of stopping it happening, of course”, he adds, with a rueful smile.

And with that, he zips up his jumper, and wanders off to add another tent to the light defences of this tiny hilltop fortress.

This is a community now preparing for an onslaught from a company claiming to have locals’ interests at heart, and an industry they thought had died decades ago.

This author

Mat Hope is editor of DeSmog UK, an investigative journalism outlet dedicated to unveiling corporate wrongdoing on climate change and the environment. He tweets @matjhope. For more information, see DeSmog UK’s map of climate science deniers pushing for Brexit based out of 55 Tufton Street. Full disclosure: Brendan Montague, editor of The Ecologist, is a former editor of DeSmog UK.