Mining in the UK: Part I

Gypsum mine
The UK Government and industry players are looking to revitalise domestic mining, placing communities and ecosystems under threat.

The prospect of increasing UK mineral and metal mining activity looks set to compound and reproduce the social unrest and ecological damage that dog other extractive projects throughout the nation.

The national mining industry in the United Kingdom has been in decline for decades, but this is now rapidly changing as the country shifts its industrial strategy, in part to focus on the its own mineral potential - to make Britain a leader in the global technological revolution known popularly as ‘Industry 4.0’.

New exploration and mining projects focusing on minerals and metals used in renewables, electronics, industrial automation and military technology have garnered strong government support.  Existing projects include extensive gold exploration across Northern Ireland and the Scottish highlands, a proposed lithium extraction project in Cornwall and tin and tungsten mining in Devon and Cornwall.

However, the prospect of increasing mineral and metal mining activity in the UK and Northern Ireland looks set to compound and reproduce the social unrest and ecological damage that dog other extractive projects throughout these isles. This three part series for The Ecologist examines the issue.

Tech metals 

A project to explore for lithium in hot springs in Cornwall has received a £1m investment. This is being used for primary drilling in preparation for sampling and production. Government agency Innovate UK has also awarded a £850,000 grant to a project looking for a lithium ‘fingerprint’ in Cornwall from space.

These strategic investments reflect the skyrocketing global demand for lithium - used in batteries for mobile phones and cars - which is expected to triple in the next decade. Lithium mining across the globe has shown devastating environmental impacts.

Hemerdon in Devon has the fourth biggest reserve of tungsten in the world. However, it has been left untapped for more than sixty years.

In 2011, Australian-based mining company Wolf Minerals was granted planning permission and began work to get the Drakelands mine up and running again. The mine made a £43.5 million loss in its first year despite rising global prices for Tungsten ore.

Tin mining  in Cornwall may also be revived, as Canadian company Strongbow Exploration acquired the rights to the South Crofty tin mine in 2016, and plans to reopen in 2021.

The prospect of increasing UK mineral and metal mining activity looks set to compound and reproduce the social unrest and ecological damage that dog other extractive projects throughout the nation.

Northern Ireland

Across the Irish Sea in Northern Ireland, where mineral resources are mostly state-owned, large areas are now covered by mineral prospecting licences given to global mining corporations. Communities across the nation are organising themselves to protect ecosystems and homes.

The Curraginhalt Gold Project in County Tyrone, owned by Canadian mineral exploration and development company Dalradian, has been publicly framed as "one of the best gold projects on the planet”, with the area holding a projected £3 billion worth of deposits.

Environmental and community-interest groups from the surrounding communities have been fighting against Dalradian’s application to mine, taking the government to court in a public enquiry and mustering over 10,000 letters rejecting the mine.

Local residents are worried that the 25 year project (which would involve unearthing 1,500 tonnes of rock a day) will rip apart their land and ruin the historic Sperrin Mountains. Dalradian plans to use cyanide solution to extract the gold from the crushed ore at a processing facility just one kilometre from the community of Greencastle.

Local people fear that mine waste could contaminate rivers and harm wildlife like otters, salmon and rare freshwater mussels.

High standards? 

In the context of Brexit, extractive industry players are increasingly pushing a narrative that mining in the UK- whether it be for coal or gold- represents a better option than importing minerals and metals from mines abroad, because of the UK’s high environmental, labour and human rights standards, and the employment the industry will create for UK citizens.

The experiences of communities across the UK resisting new coal and fracking operations tell a different story, however, and reveal how the UK is involved in a ‘double-movement’- promoting and perpetuating the extraction of both new fossil fuels and new minerals and metals used in renewable technologies.

The threat of opencast coal mining across Northeast England continues despite the UK government’s ‘Powering Past Coal’ initiative, which promises to close all coal-fired power stations in the UK by 2025. New open-cast coal projects that will offer little employment are opposed by a united front of local residents, campaigners and mining unions.

In Pont Valley, Northumberland, the Banks Mine Group plan to extract 500,000 tonnes of coal from Bradley opencast mine. Banks is also attempting to open another new coal mine in Druridge Bay, Northumberland. Both projects have faced long-term opposition from local communities and are embroiled in court cases and controversy. 

Meanwhile, fracking protesters across the UK have faced criminalisation while reforms of trespass laws and reversal of local authority decisions banning fracking cast a dark shadow over Government and industry claims to uphold and adhere to highest standards.

New mineral and metal mining operations are facing similar resistance, and that resistance is facing similar repression. A case in point is the Curraginhalt Project in Northern Ireland, where in January 2018 land defender Cormac McAleer of community group Save Our Sperrins was arrested for allegedly blocking a highway, before being swiftly released

Global boom

The common dynamics evolving at current UK extractive projects: local community concern, repression of local democracy, regulatory back-sliding and plans for expansion create a disturbing picture of how a future mining boom in Britain might unfold.

These dynamics are echoed in the expansion and acceleration of exploration and mining projects across Europe over the last five years. In Spain, France, Greece and beyond, plans to mine tech metals and rare earth minerals are being met with huge public opposition.

The growing footprint of mining in the UK reflects the Government’s new industrial strategy, which aims make Britain a leader in the global technological revolution. The new technologies necessary to advance the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, require massive amounts of minerals like lithium, cobalt, copper. This has triggered a staggering rise in the price of tech minerals and metals, and a global race for raw materials in which securing competitiveness through domestic supply has increasingly become a priority.

Another priority is to secure supplies of these critical minerals and metals from other nations through aggressive trade strategy. The extraction of minerals and metals from colonial and former-colonial territories has long provided a source of capital wealth and material development for the United Kingdom. With the UK having to develop extensive new trade agreements post-Brexit, the extent to which mining grows in Britain will likely pale in comparison to the expanding footprint of UK extractive activities and the impacts of UK demand in the Global South.

But what might the full ecological, social and climate cost of this industrial shift be? How will Brexit affect the rate of mining resurgence in the UK and beyond? And how does deepening this commitment to extractivism threaten both the speed and just-ness of a transition away from fossil fuels? We will explore these questions further in the second article of the series.

This Author 

Dawn Stevenson is a freelance journalist researching and writing about extractive industries, climate change and the fourth industrial revolution in collaboration with the Yes to Life, No to Mining Network. 

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