Climate activists halt UK open-cast coal mine

| 4th March 2020
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Mining families from Durham teamed up with climate activists to halt the expansion of an open-cast coal mine.

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Durham County is notably pro-renewables, despite being a mining community. The south facing rooftops are covered with polysilicon and thin-film solar panels. The rounded silhouette of hilly fields decorated with the spinning fans of wind turbines bobbing in and out of sight.  

Pont Valley sits within Durham, a rural area spotted with detached houses, horses and livestock. On Wednesday 26 February, it was 7 degrees and there were still clumps of snow and ice on the ground, the hedge rows still dusted white at the edges.  

Despite decades of local objection and campaigns, Pont Valley has also been home to the Bradley open-cast coal mine, owned by the Banks Group. Plans to expand this mine are currently under review by the Durham County council.

Action

To prevent this expansion, activists from across the country - Lincolnshire, Bristol, Yorkshire, London, Southampton, Scotland and Newcastle - took trains, buses, loaded into shared vans and cars to join up with local protesters in Pont Valley.  

Hundreds of activists began demonstrating on Wednesday, layered in fleeces, wool scarves, beanie hats and fingerless gloves. I watched the activists line the side of the A692 road, with flags bearing the Extinction Rebellion emblem.  

Chris Riches, an XR activist who travelled from Newcastle, explains that the demonstration is an escalation from earlier actions this month: "The first week a letter was sent to the council, asking them not consider the expansion, then there was a small protest at Durham County council and XR Youth led and blocked the entrance to Banks Group. This is now the forth and final week of action."

Kevin Haigh, a Pont Valley resident whose dad, uncles and grandfather were all coal miners, says mining in the county was important, but now, "it is a terror. We do not want any more coal mining especially open-cast."

Carol Mahoney, an XR activist from County Durham told The Ecologist that she is demonstrating to "try and make an effective protest, as the government are no good at doing anything. I have a PhD in geochemistry, I have spent my whole life working to help climate change, but these XR demonstrations are the first time I felt like I am actually making a difference."

Tactics

Onsite police confirm that protesters arrived at the gates at 6am Wednesday and, "are engaging well, with a designated police liaison team and good communication. It has been all peaceful so far."

At the end of a long day demonstrating in the cold, the local activists and XR organisers provide shuttle buses, car shares and coaches to get people home from the mine, or to accommodation in a nearby church and a few other volunteered buildings. 

The church is cold. Its pews have been removed to make space for sleeping bags, camp beds, air beds, rolling mats, blankets and rucksacks, which cover the entirety of the church floor.

At the back of the religious-building-activism-hub is a communal kitchen, where donations and volunteers serve the hungry, keeping morale high with sufficient meals, snacks, and cups of tea. 

As the church fills with sleepy activists, there is a long discussion about de-escalation tactics, first aid advice, dog attack-anxieties and security guard confrontation-fears. The discussions are spontaneous and decentralised, yet focused and productive. 

Preparation

One activist quips to another."Everyone just volunteers, you'd think it wouldn't work, but it just does." 

Activities for the next day – Thursday - are discussed. The plan is to block the main entrance to the mine at 6am by placing a yellow boat in front of the gate, while the samba band march the perimeter of the mine banging their drums as a distraction... 

Those not part of the distraction group are warned to be prepared for rough terrain, to stay together, to stay calm, not to damage any equipment or bother any workers. An activist clarifies: "We are not against them, but against the company"

There is a low risk of arrest and police involvement, but activists are warned to be prepared for the worst, just in case. 

In the early hours of the next morning, a harmonica plays in the communal kitchen, metal bowls are filed with unsweetened porridge, people share tobacco and jokes, then wash and brush their teeth in sinks inside the church.

Guards

By 7am a coach arrives. It is filled with determined activists and heads for the mine. There is a cheer at the sight of the main gate, as security guards chase after the distracting samba band. The coach turns to a side road, for the activists to alight, unseen from the main gates.  

Ninety-eight activists begin to march, from a small country lane near the mine, through ice covered mud puddles until reaching a small fence: the back entrance of the mine. Each person carefully steps over the fence, into the side ditches of the mine: the private property of Banks Group.  

As promised, it is rough terrain to walk over the excavated valley sides. People sing and whistle, overlooked by the black silhouette of a security guard, accompanied by a black German Shephard. 

Further into the mine and the security guard descends and confronts the front line of the formation, the guard shouts that the mine is private land and the activists are trespassing, warning not to get close to the dog as, 'it will bite'. 

Fear

A few hundred meters further and one guard with a dog is joined by another guard with another German Shephard, who is then joined by more security staff. There is a collision as the guards try to push individuals back, the dogs snarl and bark.

Security yell that there is a health and safety concern and to leave the premises. The activists spread out, hold hands and begin to sing.

The tense atmosphere dissipates, there is a collective statement of intentions by the group to occupy the site, but not to damage any equipment. Banners are laid on the floor, as the activists set up camp for the day, complete with sandwiches and flasks of tea. 

Cheyenne Loana, an a XR activist, said: "I am pleased with how well we handled it with the dogs barking, I felt empowered, like, yes, we can do this."

Yana Carmela, an XR activist, said: "When we entered the mine, people were really scared of the dogs, but then we just started singing and everyone held hands slowly."

Critical mass

An on-site spokesperson for Banks Group confirms all activity at the mine has stopped, and the workers sent home. He added: "This is a dangerous area and we do not want anyone falling over or getting hurt. We recognise the legal right to protest but this is private land."

Indigo Rumbelow, another XR activist, says the occupation of the mine site "shows the power of a unified critical mass of people."

Activists remained in the coal mine till the afternoon, and held peaceful demonstrations at the main entrance of the mine until Friday afternoon.  

Durham Constabulary confirmed to The Ecologist that there were no arrests or criminal charges in relation to the demonstration. 

A hearing will be held by Durham County Council in April to decide if the expansion of the open-cast coal mine will go ahead.

Rowan McMaughlin, a local XR activist, told The Ecologist" "I hope this demonstration raises awareness of the damage caused by open-cast mining and stops the expansion plans."

This Author 

Lucy E J Woods is an international freelance journalist, specialising in on-the-ground environmental reporting.

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