By Sandra Laville
May 15, 2018 - Four months after the UK government announced it was phasing out coal, campaigners are digging in to stop what they say will be the devastation of opencast mining at a beauty spot in the north-east of England.
Local people and environmentalists have 16 working days left to stop the first spade going into the ground on 71 hectares of grassland, fields and woods in the Pont valley, County Durham.
Under planning permission, the mining company Banks Group has to start work by 3 June or their licence to start mining the site will expire. Campaigners say the “hit-and-run” nature of opencast mining, and the UK government’s commitment to phasing out coal, makes any new mine an anachronism.
Protesters are planning a series of public demonstrations in the days leading up to the deadline.
Liam Carr, who lives in the area, said: “Coal-mining is our heritage not our future. My granddad was a coal miner. We have been through all this before, we know the damage it does to the environment, and coal is the fuel of past not the future.”
The site in the Pont valley off the A692 between the villages of Leadgate and Dipton, is not far from Druridge Bay in Northumberland, where the same company’s attempts to extract 3m tonnes of coal, sandstone and fireclay, was rejected by the then communities secretary Sajid Javid in March because of its potential environmental damage and the “very substantial” impact on climate change.
More than 86,000 people have signed a petition calling on Javid to revoke permission for the Pont valley mine.
Javid’s successor, James Brokenshire, is now examining representations to repeal the planning permission for the Pont valley mining. A spokesperson for the Department of Communities and Local Government said: “We will make a decision in due course.”
Banks Group plans to extract around 500,000 tonnes of coal in two to three years from the site and says 30 new jobs will be created.
They say after mining is completed, restoration will involve a new nature reserve and parkland.
Lewis Stokes, community relations manger for Banks, said: “The simple fact remains that, while the UK transitions to a low-carbon economy, we still need coal.
“Government projections state that coal will continue to be an important part of the UK’s energy mix until at least 2025, while the low sulphur, high-quality coal contained within the Bradley site is vital for industrial processes such as the manufacturing of cement and steel.”
He condemned what he called the “illegal activity” of those protesting at the site.
“We do not believe their viewpoint reflects that of the wider local community,” he said.
Campaigners say they are driven to protect the habitats already established on the site which support red kites, great crested newts, badgers, bats and barn owls, according to evidence given to the public inquiries. It is their presence that has spurred protesters on for 40 years - ever since the then National Coalboard submitted the first application to opencast mine the area.
Three public inquiries later, those camped out in the Pont valley believe that as the country moves to a low-carbon economy, there is even less reason now to opencast mine than ever before.
June Davison, who lives in Dipton, said: “My community has been fighting the threat of opencast coal extraction for over 30 years. In that time we’ve won three public inquiries and three inspectors have agreed that protecting the Pont valley is important.
“The government have revised their energy policy and plan to phase out coal-fired power stations by 2025. Now, in 2018, it makes no sense to subject such a beautiful area to the detrimental effects of opencasting.”
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