Illegal mine faces court action

Extinction Rebellion protesters and their pink boat blockade the Ffos-y-Fran mine, June 2023
Extinction Rebellion press release
Firm mined 270,000 tonnes of coal since planning permission ran out - more than planned extension had proposed.

It is hard to believe that in the UK today a company can continue to mine coal illegally — because their planning permission has expired — in broad daylight.



Campaigners have launched legal action against Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council and the Welsh Government to force the closure of an unlawfully operated coal mine in South Wales. 

Mine operator, Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd, has continued to extract coal from the Ffos-y-Fran open cast coal mine – the largest remaining in the UK – despite the expiry of its planning permission in September 2022. An application to extend the permission was refused by the local authority in April. 

The council originally said it would decide about enforcing against the illegal mining once it had decided whether to approve or refuse the planning application. 


Following the unanimous rejection of the proposals by the council’s planning committee, it issued an “enforcement notice” to the company. This is a legal document informing the recipient that it is in breach of its permission, and what it must do about it. The recipient has a right to appeal an enforcement notice. 

However, the Good Law Project and Coal Action Network (CAN) now argue that the council should have issued the stronger “stop notice”, which would mean the mine operator would have to cease coaling immediately, and would not be able to appeal.

Expert legal opinion commissioned by the groups found that the lack of enforcement by the local council and the Welsh Government preventing ongoing coaling activity at a Welsh mine is itself “arguably unlawful”.

The council issued the enforcement notice on 24 May, giving the operator till 27 June to appeal, and a further month to comply or face further action. 


Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd appealed the notice at the end of July. Campaigners fear that effectively gives them another year or more to carry on coaling while going through the appeals process. 

The coal company has extracted at least 273,620 tonnes of coal from the mine since its planning permission lapsed, according to analysis of data from the Coal Authority by CAN. 

This is very likely an underestimate, since data is only available up to 30 June 2023, it said. But it is also more than the total it would have mined if it had been given permission for the extension it planned. 

Jennine Walker, the legal manager at the Good Law Project, said: “It is hard to believe that in the UK today, a company can continue to mine coal illegally — because their planning permission has expired — in broad daylight, for over eleven months.”


The campaigners also argue that the Welsh Government should have stepped in on the issue. The government’s policy is for permission for new or expanded coal mines to be refused. 

It is hard to believe that in the UK today a company can continue to mine coal illegally — because their planning permission has expired — in broad daylight.



The coal being mined at Ffos-y-Fran is being transported on rail networks owned by the Welsh Government, according to ITV News Wales.

Daniel Therkelsen, a campaigner at Coal Action Network, said: “Residents suffering 15 years of noise and air pollution have been betrayed by their local council, whilst the Welsh Government stubbornly refused to step in and put its climate policies into practice, instead enriching itself by transporting the illegal coal along its railways. 

“We clearly see this as a case for the Welsh Government introducing a clear and complete ban on any coal mining on Welsh soil, bringing it in line with Scotland's de facto coal mine ban in October 2022.” 

The Welsh Senedd’s Climate Change Committee has written to the Welsh Government to ask what it plans to do to speed up the appeal, stop the mining, and ensure restoration takes place. 

Llyr Gruffydd MS, the committee's chair, wrote: “The situation raises significant questions about the environmental impact of the mine, the effectiveness of the legal and regulatory framework, and the effect on the local community.”


Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd claimed that it needed the extension to the mine in order to fund restoration of the mine site, the potential for which was one of the reasons the project was originally given permission in 2005. Costs of restoration have been estimated at £75-125 million, but the mine company has only set aside £15 million. 

The mining company has paid out £41.5 million to its parent company in dividends since 2017, according to an analysis of company accounts by the Good Law Project. 

This parent company, Gwent Holdings Ltd, is controlled by the same family that runs Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd, and in March reported cash holdings of £81.7 million. In the past three years, the mine operator has also paid out £8.39 million in “royalties” to a firm controlled by their director, David Lewis.

The mining company is also in trouble with the Coal Authority, which is responsible for granting licenses for coal mining operations. It found the operator has been digging up coal outside the boundary allowed by its licence, and is taking enforcement action. 

Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council and the Welsh Government both declined to comment for this article. Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd could not be reached.

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Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and chief reporter for The Ecologist. She tweets at @Cat_Early76.

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