Coal is our Heritage, not our Future
By Liam Carr
See Also: The Black Stuff was our Heritage, Green is our Future (Think Left)
UK Coal are back, and they want to opencast the Pont valley. The Pont Valley is under threat. It is a beautiful valley the North East of England which lies between three former pit villages Leadgate, Medomsley and Dipton. UK Coal want to start a surface mine (opencast) in the Pont valley.
One thing about UK Coal that should be admired is their relentless tenacity in trying to decimate the varied habitats that make up the Pont valley to get at the coal seams beneath. Since the painful end of the Mining era in the North East in 1986 they have applied for planning permission to opencast at various sites in the Pont valley on several occasions. This is the third time they have applied to opencast this very patch of land (although they have used a different name to describe it each time) all applications have, until now, been unanimously refused by both the planning officers who work for the council and by elected representatives.
This most recent application was little different than the any of the previous ones other than in name UK Coal have called it the ‘Bradley’ site. Bradley is an area on the opposite side of the valley, a cynic might think that this is a deliberate attempt to confuse the public. It may have worked on the planning officer who was not in post at the time of earlier refusals and chose to break with tradition, this time recommending the application for approval. The communities surrounding the proposed site were understandably outraged and the council overturned the decision. UK Coal have seen a chink in the armour of previously impenetrable opposition and seized the opportunity to appeal this decision. A public enquiry starts on the 25th of October and is expected to last for 3 weeks, after this a final decision will be made.
This area comprises both coniferous and deciduous woodland and one less common type of habitat, ponds.
Ponds are forgotten havens of biodiversity. Hedgerows got a bit of publicity a few years back; people have camped in trees to save them from road expansion but to my knowledge there has never been a Save Our Ponds campaign. In the planning application for opencast UK Coal said that they would relocate several mature ponds to a location in the valley that does not lie over a coal seam. Recovery would take decades. It would be impossible for plant species and invertebrate populations to be relocated effectively and the gradual increase in biodiversity over time would need to start all over again. This is known as secondary succession.
Biodiversity is not the only type of diversity that is under threat. Genetic diversity would also be reduced. Genetic diversity is vital for the health of a population. it can be described simply as ‘how wide the gene pool is’ but more accurately it is the total number of different alleles in a population. A gene is a section of DNA that codes for a characteristic and an allele is a form of a gene. If there are several forms of a gene within a population then genetic diversity is high, this makes the population more resilient, more resistant to disease and less vulnerable to extinction.
The genetic diversity of the already rare great crested newt would be particularly threatened by being moved to a newly constructed pond.
Relocation would, in effect, act as a ‘genetic bottleneck’ This term is used to described what happens when a population must restart from a small number of individuals. There are only a few alleles in the small number of individuals that would moved. They would be the only ones that could breed in the new habitat. It would be impossible to move anywhere near the whole population. Newts send a lot of time literally buried in silt and even under turf. Needless to say surface mining would wipe out these individuals along with any unique alleles which will never be passed on and disappear from the gene pool forever. The relocated population would be more closely related to each-other and more vulnerable to disease and extinction.
There are no cheetahs in the Pont valley. They are however an excellent example of an organism with very low genetic diversity. If you compare their DNA then every cheetah on this planet is as closely related as two human siblings. Amazingly they are so genetically similar that all cheetahs will accept skin grafts from all other cheetahs. It is thought that the population was reduced around 10 000 years ago Damage to genetic diversity is a problem that never really goes away.
There are many valid arguments against coal as an energy resource and against its methods of extraction. These are avenues will be explored in the process of enquiry. Some of these arguments are familiar territory. There are the impacts on biodiversity and genetic diversity. There is the impact in the lives of the young people; children who are primary school will be preparing for their GCSEs by the time extraction of an estimated 500 000 tonnes of coal would be complete, some of the lucky ones (who think they can live with the debt) will have left the area to go to University by the time the area starts to look like a viable habitat. Their childhood will be spent with plant machinery rather than plant life. The opportunity to play out in a wild magical place only a small-persons-leg-friendly walk from my back gate will be denied. The site will never be the same. Unlike the men from the area who risked their lives down the pit, the landscape will not retain its rugged character planning application to opencast was refused thanks to the work of councillors and local activists.
The argument I am least comfortable with, may be one of the most effective. The application was recommended for approval on the ground that the economic benefits to the area outweighed negative aspects. This is an argument about money. The price of coal is going up which makes it a valuable commodity. The reason UK Coal keeps coming back to this area is because the Pont Valley contains a profit for its shareholders. The price of coal is artificial, it seems ludicrous but globally fossil fuels receive 10 times the subsidy of renewables. If carbon capture and storage was a precondition of of all newly mined coal then I’m not sure the Pont valley would not be such a huge attraction for UK Coal, maybe there shareholders could take a long-view and invest in fledgling renewable based start-ups in the North East instead. It would be better for the region than fixed term security jobs on minimum wage that will end when the coal is out. Investment in new green technology is better for the world economy too. Scientists and economists have agreed and it is now widely accepted that mitigating for and reducing the causes of climate change is cheaper than doing nothing, waiting for it to happen and then dealing with the resulting chaos.
But even with the price of coal as it is today the economic argument for opencast coal-mining does not make sense. UK Coal have pledged 10p per tonne of coal for community work to be shared between three former pit villages. To compensate for 3-4 years of increased traffic, noise and dust, then a recovery time which really cant be determined accurately the villages will get around £16 000 assuming their extraction targets are met. That is £4000 per year of disruption. The untouched is worth more to the communities than that and it will continue to be for all of our lives. This statement about the land being worth more is not a throwaway line. It is a quantifiable fact.
UK Coal appealed against the decision and are trying to get the decision to refuse planning overturned.
- They will say that we [the activists] are NIMBYs.
- Well the Pont valley is my backyard and I don’t want an opencast coal mine in it so yes I am a NIMBY but I don’t want an opencast coal mine in your backyard either, or in anyone else’s for that matter – there are other ways to generate electricity there are other energy resources and if it comes to it, and carbon capture takes off and I think it might just be burying the problem – then there are other ways of extracting it.
- They will say that the opencast will not adversely effect the environment
- What an absolute load of utter rubbish. The layers of soil and rock have taken millions of years to form, they will be dumped back in no pariticular order when UK coal have finished. Industrial scale opencast coal mining is relatively new, we are not fully aware of the long term environmental effects but one thing that I am sure of is that it will have an negative impact on biodiversity in the region. It is impossible to move an entire habitat, abiotic factors will not be the same in the new location, succession (the gradual increase in biodiversity over time) will have to restart. UK coal want to relocate mature ponds so they can mine underneath them. You don’t have to be a great crested newt, a mayfly or a Biology lecturer to know that it will never work.
- They will say that the opencast will create jobs.
- This is true – fixed term contract jobs that will be disappear just as quickly as the coal does. UK coal will also bring their own staff, which will do nothing for the local economy. We need long term investment in new technology and renewables that will create skilled, long term jobs for the future in the region.
- They will say that they spend millions on improving the roads. That amounts so another roundabout to allow trucks and heavy machinery to turn into the coal field.
- The last thing we need is another roundabout 200 yds from a one with 5 exits, they only vehicles that would ever turn right at this ‘road improvment’ would be those going to the Stanley area, the road has recently been widened and is now fine without a roundabout. The people who will be infuriated by the roundabout would be commuters who will face further potential delay when driving into Gateshead/Newcastle from the Consett area.
But really it doesn’t matter what highly paid executives and lawyers from UK Coal say. We the people of the local area must fight the appeal as effectively as we fought original application.
The Pont Valley Network were not set up to oppose the opencast. The Network will fight UK Coals appeal with a the relentless tenacity required but the Network existed before this application was made and it will exist for long after the outcome of the appeal is decided.
The Pont Valley Network is a group of individuals who put countless hours of their own time into all sorts of activities in the valley; From stimulating young minds to exercising old bodies and from Archaeology to Zoology. Tourists are visiting the valley and walking, the Coast to Coast cycle route overlooks the site. People passing though bringing not only money but also an appreciation of the beauty of the landscape that some of us, who have overlooked the valley all of our lives may sometimes take for granted. I use the phrase ‘countless hours‘ loosely because time freely given can be counted. A capitalist must have coined the phrase ‘time is money’ A Volunteer Investment and Value Audit puts a value in pounds on this freely given time and the time given by volunteers is worth far more to the community 10p per tonne of coal which amounts to scant compensation for an assault on the landscape.
After the open-cast coal mine proposed at Bradley, Co. Durham was unanimously rejected in February UK:Coal has submitted an appeal to the planning authority.
So now, in what may seem like an very unusual call to arms: If you think that ‘the market should decide on these matters’ then join us (who may think otherwise) in trying to prevent the senseless intrusion into an area of ecological and economic significance appeal will start on Tuesday 25th October 2011 and last 16 days. The original application hearing took an afternoon to reject their environmentally damaging workings.
The Pont Valley Network will be speaking against the appeal on the grounds that it will have a negative affect on the area, increase vehicle movements, destroy local heritage sites, kill great crested newts (a protected species), remove biodiversity, harm local people’s health and the mine will only be 150m from a primary school.
If you support this objection to the open cast mining, please sign this petition here
Coal is our heritage not our future.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING:
Coal Action , Pont Valley Network
The Northern Echo on Coal Company Appeal
Succession, Biodiversity and Coal, Liam Carr.
The Coal-ition , Liam’s Blog , Liam Carr
Pont Valley Objection Petition
The Black Stuff was our Heritage, Green is our Future Think Left
Good Luck with the campaign, Liam.
In a different context but in the same vein, is the threat of SE Water to create a ‘reservoir’ over an enormous tract of land near to me. The reasons for its size is that though described as a ‘valley’, it is in fact a very shallow depression in the land. SEW want to simply flood the land to the depth of 1m with so-called excess river water in winter, and allow it to drain down during the summer leaving mud flats. One reason for choosing the site was the ‘poor’ quality of the agricultural land … but as we know that means land with a much greater diversity of species than the barren fields of ‘good’ agricultural land. The main victim of this proposal is a traditional mixed farm, the fields of which are still divided by the same medieval hedges that can be observed on ancient maps of the area. It is situated next to an SSSI, and has documented evidence of its significance as a reservoir of species diversity, and in particular of bird and insect species.
It was so outrageous, that Defra (under Labour’s Hilary Benn), referred the proposal to a Public Enquiry but essentially SE Water was only stopped by the Banking Crisis, and will doubtless return to argue again for this environmental vandalism… just as UK Coal have with your area.
Good luck with your fight to save the Pont Valley. It should be a ‘no-brainer’ but I know that that doesn’t mean it will be!
The wild spaces that remain in the UK are constantly under threat. It is sad but unless we can prove that the space is literally ‘worth saving’ and win the economic argument then there is little hope
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