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.
There are many valid arguments against coal as an energy resource and against its methods of extraction. These 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.1 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.
The argument I am least comfortable with, may be one of the most effective. The application was recommended for approval on the grounds 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.2 If carbon capture and storage was a precondition of all newly mined coal then I’m not sure the Pont valley would be such a huge attraction for UK Coal. Maybe their 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 has 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 cannot really be determined accurately, the villages will get around £16000 each, assuming their extraction targets are met. That is £4000 per year of disruption. The untouched land 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. The Pont Valley Network was not set up to oppose the opencast. The Network will fight UK Coal’s appeal with 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 through bring 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' and it this case it is: A Volunteer Investment and Value Audit3 puts a value in pounds on this freely given time and the time given by volunteers is worth far more to the community than 10p per tonne of coal which amounts to scant compensation for what is a grievous assault on the landscape. The economic argument is clear, literally the Pont Valley is worth saving.
So now, a very unusual call to arms: If you think that 'the market should decide on these matters' then join us in trying to prevent the senseless intrusion into an area of great ecological and economic significance.
Coal is our heritage not our future.
I took some photos on the site; The Pont Valley in Pictures
Some further arguments against the opencast have been edited and posted on Think Left. Thanks to Pam and the team.
If you havn't already then please sign this petition against the opencast