Page last updated at 00:27 GMT, Monday, 1 December 2008

Government reversal on coal mines

By Verity Murphy
BBC Panorama

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When it comes to CO2 emissions, burning coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel

A pledge by the government to not back environmentally-damaging opencast mining is being broken, the BBC's Panorama programme reveals.

Britain was once peppered with collieries, providing fuel for the country's energy, industry and transportation needs.

This is no longer the case. Nowadays nearly three quarters of the coal we burn is shipped in from Russia, South Africa and even Australia.

But with overseas energy supplies becoming alarmingly unpredictable, the UK government is keen to secure greater domestic supplies by extracting more of the billions of tons of coal beneath our feet.

There are plans to open more deep mines and extend the few we still have. But deep mines take years to develop and there is a much easier and quicker method of extracting the coal - opencast mining on the surface.

When the government came to power it called the huge excavations of opencast mines "too high a price to pay" in environmental terms.

How do you return a 150-year-old oak tree? How do you make hedgerows as ancient and diverse as they are here?
Virge Richichi
Leicestershire resident

But as the BBC's Panorama programme reports this week, Whitehall seems to have reversed that election promise and has been giving the go-ahead for more and more opencast mines.

Last year no opencast applications were rejected, while 14 were approved - compared with just four in 2005.

One of the key complaints critics make about opencast mines is that the huge excavations are eyesores which destroy areas of precious countryside.

In the case of the Delhi opencast mine in Northumberland, where two million tons of coal have been carved out of the ground in six years, the hole is as deep as a tower block and nearly half a mile (0.8km) long.

'Irreparable damage'

The coal companies are keen to point out that when their work is completed the area is landscaped.

However, Virge Richichi, who lives next to a new opencast mine in Leicestershire says that the countryside is irreparably damaged:

"How do you return a 150-year-old oak tree? How do you make hedgerows as ancient and diverse as they are here?"

Alyson Austin
Alyson Austin says her life has been ruined by the opencast mine

And for those who live near the mines whilst excavations are under way, there are other consequences too.

Merthyr Tydfil resident Alyson Austin bought her home in 2003 - two years before the mining company Miller Argent was given permission to work there.

Now, her house stands about 400m (437 yards) from the Ffos-y-Fran opencast mine. It is a reclamation scheme to restore the landscape and make safe old workings, but it will also yield 10m tons of coal - enough to supply much of South Wales.

"The nearest house is actually 37 metres away," Ms Austin said. "What this is doing is destroying my life."

'No escape'

Ms Austin said that the machinery is being used from 0700 to 2200 and that there is no escape from the noise:

"You can't go to bed until those machines have closed down for the night. My children can't sleep until after 10 o'clock," she told Panorama.

Ffos-y-Fran opencast mine
At Ffos-y-Fran the mine is within metres of residents' houses

And unlike most opencast sites which have a working life of four to five years, the people of Merthyr Tydfil will have this giant hole on their doorstep for 15 years.

The mining company Miller Argent says that health and safety are of the utmost importance, that complaints about dust and noise at the site, which have always been limited in number and location, have been dropping.

But Canon Steve Morgan, who speaks out against the mine in his sermons at the nearby Anglican church, complains that, as has happened in the past, Merthyr Tydfil is being made to pay a heavy price for others:

"Do you think that for one moment that a local authority in Guildford or Cobham would allow open casting to take place within 35 metres of the nearest house?" he said.

Overruled

However, as Panorama has found it is often not the local authority which is to blame.

In Ffos-y-Fran anti-mine protesters obtained letters which revealed strong pressure from Westminster on the Welsh Assembly to get the opencast mine approved.

Canon Steve Morgan
Canon Steve Morgan says Merthyr Tydfil is being treated unfairly

In one of the letters shown to Panorama, Energy Minister Mike O'Brien told assembly members that while he understood the concerns of residents and fears about the environmental impact, the need for coal outweighed those concerns.

In the case of opencast mines in Derbyshire and Leicestershire the county councils rejected the plans, but their decisions were overturned by the government.

According to environmental campaigner George Monbiot "it is clear practice now, there is a presumption in favour of opencast mining, whatever official documents might say".

"We see time and again government ministers putting pressure on to make sure that opencast mines go ahead," Mr Monbiot said.

Greenfield plans

And though over the last 15 to 20 years there have been many applications on brownfield sites, Andrew Bloodworth from the British Geological Survey told Panorama that the "stock of brownfield sites has run down".

George Monbiot
George Monbiot says the government is pushing for more mines

"You are probably more likely to see more applications on greenfield sites than you were in the past," he said.

The government's attitude towards mining on greenfield sites was put to the test in the pretty village of Ravenstone in Leicestershire.

When Britain's biggest mining company UK Coal asked for planning permission to dig nearly three quarters of a million tons of coal out of a greenfield site next to the village the request was met with fierce local opposition and rejected by the county council.

In May 2006, the county council was overruled - by the government that had previously been so against open casting.

'Bad for society'

Frank Dobson MP, Labour's environment spokesman from 1994-1997, says that the shift in government attitudes is not necessarily a u-turn, but "it's certainly a turn for the worse".

Anti-coal mine protesters
Environmentalists are infuriated by plans for more mines

"By and large greenfield sites are best left as greenfield - we have to accept sometimes that housing has got to be built on them or other things that are useful to society, but there's nothing much useful to society about open casting," he said.

"It is grotesquely ugly, it can be noisy, it is certainly dusty and dirty and it's not good for people who live nearby."

And it is not just the local impact of the mining which is of concern to critics, but the wider environmental impact too.

Eighty percent of the global rise in carbon dioxide is caused by burning fossil fuels and when burned coal is the dirtiest of all fossil fuels.

Clean coal plan

In order to cut CO2 emissions the government is pinning its hopes on clean coal technology, called carbon capture and storage.

Tom Burke
Tom Burke says government rhetoric is not matched by action

The Department of Energy and Climate Change told Panorama that as one of only four countries with concrete plans for a clean coal demonstration plant, "the UK is a global leader in promoting carbon capture and storage".

But Professor Tom Burke, who has advised three government secretaries and worked for both Labour and Conservative governments, says that he is incensed at the slow pace of progress towards clean coal technology.

"What you get from the government is a lot of rhetoric, what you don't get from the government is a lot of clear commitment to turn that rhetoric into reality," he said.

Panorama: Comeback Coal - Monday 1 December - 8.30pm BBC One

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