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Opencast coalmine decision derailed in South Wales

event report

Alyson Austin couldn’t quite believe it as she took the phone call: the councillors had voted to derail the proposed opencast coal mine that she’s been fighting against for years.

Yesterday (Wednesday) was a day of high drama in the fight against climate change and fossil fuel extraction in the UK. Up in Lancashire, councillors were forced to defer their decision on whether to frack the county until next Monday. And in South Wales, plans to push through a new 6-million tonne opencast coal mine at Nant Llesg, near Merthyr Tydfil, were dealt a stunning blow as Caerphilly Council voted to delay a final decision until 4th August. Two communities – joined in common cause to fight fossil fuels.

Yesterday I hopped aboard a train to join Alyson, other community campaigners and Friends of the Earth Cymru staff at the Caerphilly Council offices. A rally against opencast coal was staged outside before everyone headed inside to take part in the planning committee hearing – the community’s chance to voice its objections to the proposed mine, direct to councillors.

The meeting opened with a presentation from the county’s planning officer. “This is an application to dig up 6 million tonnes of coal”, he intoned – the true horror of what this would mean for both people and the planet obscured behind dry statistics. The Welsh Minister for Natural Resources, it was revealed, had declined to call the application in – despite over 6,000 people signing Alyson’s petition, hosted by Friends of the Earth, asking that he do so.

Then it was the turn of those objecting to the coal mine to speak. Each had just three minutes in which to make their objections: but each did so with enormous passion and clarity.

Alyson stood up to speak. “Opencast coal mining is a noisy, dirty, barbaric industry… If approved, this opencast coal mine will be bad for the community, bad for the environment, bad for the economy, and the council’s vision of a greener cleaner future will disappear into a big black hole.”

Alyson’s husband Chris, who’s also campaigned against opencast coal in South Wales for years, said: “This mine is not wanted, and not needed… [it] would commit this authority to support 14 years of supplying a product that the world is starting to treat as a pariah.”

Gareth Clubb, Director of Friends of the Earth Cymru, reminded councillors of their moral and legal obligations to tackle climate change. “This proposal before you today promises to release 16 million tonnes of greenhouse gases,” he said. “That’s more than every single planning application combined that has ever been approved by Caerphilly County Borough Council since it came into being back in 1996… At some point in time, someone must take account of climate change and turn down this application. Councillors, that point in time is now. And Councillors, that someone is you.”

In total, 22 spoken objections were heard (including from former coal miners opposed to opencast), on top of hundreds of written objection letters. In April, the Welsh Assembly voted unanimously for a moratorium on opencast coal, but the Welsh Government and councils have so far ignored the will of Wales’ elected representatives.

Later, Miller Argent, the opencast mining company behind the Nant Llesg application – who already operate Wales’ largest opencast mine nearby, Ffos-y-fran – outlined their case for the new mine. They were joined by Big Six energy giant RWE Npower, who stated that the coal from Nant Llesg would help supply their coal power station at Aberthaw.

Significantly, RWE let slip that they think Aberthaw can continue to burn coal “well into the 2020s”, without constraints. That puts the company at odds with the views of the Energy Secretary, Amber Rudd, who recently said she anticipated coal supplying just 1% of electricity by 2025. DECC’s annual energy projections forecast coal phasing out earlier and earlier each year.

Then, the moment of truth. What would councillors decide?

It wasn’t what we expected.

The council voted unanimously against the plans for Nant Llesg as they currently stand. They called for a fresh report from planning officers, but one that would outline the reasons for rejecting the opencast mine – with the next decision due on 4th August.

Alyson, Chris, and the community campaigners were delighted (you can watch their reaction to the vote at 47 seconds in on this video – just don’t leave the volume up too loud…). The momentum is now against the opencast mine. Stay tuned for further developments, and for what you can do to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Alyson as the fight against opencast coal in the UK gathers pace.

Blog written by Guy Shrubsole. 25th June 2015.

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