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Does mining have a future in Wales?

16 October 06 06:38 GMT
By Clare Davidson
Business reporter, BBC News, Tower Colliery, Cynon Valley

As part of a series on the Welsh economy, BBC News examines the future of coal mining in South Wales, where the last remaining colliery is pondering its future as its coal reserves run out - and hopes to profit from the new drive for clean energy.

If Cardiff is the economic gem in Wales's crown, a short train journey up the valleys shows a different story.

Uniform grey, terraced houses sit in straight rows, surrounded by wide hills. Several buildings are boarded up.

Taffs Well. Pontypridd. Deeper into the valley to Penrhiwceiber, where an occasional light is on, and finally Aberdare.

Last deep mine

A hundred years ago, these were thriving mining communities and crucial to the Welsh economy.

But mass pit closures under Mrs Thatcher changed that.

However, there is one exception: Tower Colliery in the Cynon Valley, the last deep mine in South Wales.

Tower was also closed in 1994 - but in an unprecedented move, the workers bought back the mine.

Under the leadership of union chairman Tyrone O'Sullivan, 239 workers contributed £8,000 apiece of their redundancy money.

Now Tower is the only wholly employee-owned mine in Europe.

It can be reached following a short drive from Aberdare - down a road whose entrance is marked solely by an incongruous sign in the middle of nowhere saying "Entrance 1".

The hubbub of activity at the mine, though, belies its remote location.

As personnel manager Glyndwr Roberts, a stocky man, beckons me into the office, people keep popping their heads around the door as the phone rings.

Now in its 12th year, Tower has beaten all expectations.

"The Coal Board said there would be five years' coal," says Mr Roberts, gleefully.

"We proved them all wrong."

Way of life

The buy-out's chief aim was to safeguard jobs, wages - and working conditions.

At its peak, in a region of high unemployment, the colliery's workforce has reached 300 workers.

"These are skilled men - electricians, coal face men, loaders," says Mr O'Sullivan, "this isn't Tesco."

And the miners are getting younger. The average age is 45 years old - down from 57 when the colliery was taken over, says Mr Roberts, whose two sons work there as miners.

Sitting on coal

It is not just a job. Mining is a way of life, and the sense of community is tangible.

But following the mass closures, most of Wales's coal comes from abroad - often from South America.

"In Wales, coal mines are part of the collective conscience but [local coal] is hardly happening," says Roger Wade of the Environment Agency.

Molly Scott Cato, a green economist with the University of Wales, says the nation is "sitting on coal".

"From an economic perspective," she says, "importing makes no sense."

Mr O'Sullivan has no doubt that they are right.

"British Coal's [1979] estimates for Tower's coal reserves were far too low," he argues.

Wales, he thinks, has more than 250 million tonnes of workable coal reserves.

"My biggest interest is in developing other mines, re-structuring and creating jobs," he says.

"We just need the will."

Otherwise Britain could be left with one or two mines, and the skills will be lost.

The question, he says, is simple. "Does the British government want coal?"

Coal revival?

But now is crunch time. The colliery is entering its final 12 months.

"It now takes over an hour to get to the coalface," says Mr Roberts, "and the coal field is littered with faults."

The Welsh Assemby government has a special redundancy package for the workers, with an extended 18-month period of retraining.

But does the end of Tower signal the end of mining in Wales?

Not necessarily, according to Brian Morgan, of Cardiff Business School.

"People refer to coal in the past but coal is the fuel of the future," he says.

"With oil and gas at current prices, coal is viable."

Last winter, coal supplied half the UK's electricity needs, up from a third.

And globally, coal is even more critical.

China, which relies for nearly 80% of its electricity from coal, plans to build more than 500 new coal-fired power stations - a fact Mr O'Sullivan is quick to stress.

Cleaner coal

In pollution terms, though, coal still has a bad record - a reputation of which the UK government is acutely aware.

According to Mr O'Sullivan, this presents an opportunity.

"If China and India are going to keep using coal, surely developing technology to ensure coal is cleaner makes sense," he says.

But Mr Roberts says the necessary investment in clean coal technology has not occurred.

"If the UK decides against coal, it will make no difference globally - China will keep using it," he says.

"The government is shoving us all towards nuclear - it costs an arm an a leg, and they haven't a clue what to do with the waste."

Plans afoot

In the yard, I meet Peter, who like many others has worked in pits all his life.

Now he is restricted to the "time-keeping" department after back problems caused by years underground. Without hesitating he says: "I would be down there [mining] tomorrow, if I could."

Even without mines, Mr O'Sullivan is adamant that there are other possibilities for the 480 acres of land belonging to the colliery.

"We could redevelop it to create 300 or 400 jobs," he says.

Both he and members of the government say discussions are under way, though no one will divulge details.

And Tower's workers believe what happened once can happen once more.

"I put my faith in Tyrone and others last time," says Peter. "I will do it again."

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