Sunday, 4 January 2015

The Parc Slip Monster

Celtic Energy's inability to fill a hole they dug has left
a murky "lake" for local communities to deal with.
(Pic : BBC Wales)

Just before Christmas, the issue of open-cast mining in south west Wales reared it's head again after an intervention by a group of Assembly Members, worried about faltering restoration plans at two former mines.

Caerphilly-based Celtic Energy – listed on the recent Western Mail Top 300 as the 56th largest company by turnover in Wales - transferred ownership of four open-cast sites to British Virgin Islands registered subsidiary, Oak Regeneration. The two largest sites are Parc Slip near Kenfig Hill - which straddles the border between Neath Port Talbot (NPT) and Bridgend (BCBC) – and East Pit near Cwmllynfell in the Amman Valley.

Oak Regeneration are tasked with restoring the two sites following the expiration of mining licences. They propose to develop a garden village at Parc Slip and a resort at East Pit. In order to fund these works, Oak Regeneration were pressing for further extensions to mining licences.

There's a huge coal seem stretching from Margam to Pencoed. Most of it is under the Cefn Hirgoed Common and Sarn, so the only realistic extraction point is towards the Margam end, which has either been open-cast already or is farmland.

Extensions to mining licences are often highly-controversial and strongly opposed in local communities as it's a particularly dirty and noisy industry and renders previously open-access land useless for decades (more at the end of Digging deep into deals done dirt cheap).

Perhaps Oak Regeneration hoped the "ambitious" restoration proposals would swing licence decisions and public opinion in their favour, to the point that some local councillors were won over by the plans. Both NPT and BCBC dilly-dallied on issuing enforcement notices (as the respective planning authorities), which would legally-bind the company to immediately start work on restoring the sites back to normal. Mining even continued at East Pit after the licence expired.

The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) intervened and several Oak Regeneration directors found themselves in court accused of attempting to defraud Bridgend, NPT and Powys councils. In February 2014 the case was dismissed, and an attempt to restart the case failed late last year. By the looks of it the SFO tried altering the charges after the case went to court, but because no money changed hands there was little hard evidence to implicate the defendants.

The cost of restoring both mines is estimated to be £157million, but Oak Regeneration are reported to have only set aside a paltry £8million. Unless extensions to mining licences are granted, it's likely that the resulting enforcement notices would bankrupt Oak Regeneration, and the cost of restoring the mines will fall on NPT, BCBC and the Welsh Government.

Although she wasn't mentioned in relation to the intervention, Bethan Jenkins AM (Plaid, South Wales West) is one of the few AMs who has spoken out consistently on this and has campaigned on open-cast mining since she was first elected.

It's also right to say she's often given short shrift by Welsh Government ministers – usually Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside) and previously John Griffiths AM (Lab, Newport East) – when pressing for answers in the Assembly.

Since it's become more obvious that the sites are unlikely to be restored, the rest of the AMs in South Wales West have caught up Keystone Cops style – up to and including Carwyn Jones himself (though he did know about this).

The AMs are calling for Celtic Energy - Oak Regeneration's parent company - to stump up the restoration money. Celtic Energy have sung from the same hymn sheet as Oak Regeneration : extend mining licences to raise restoration funds. In light of falling coal prices it's unlikely to raise enough.

It isn't limited to this part of Wales either. Although Bethan's the most prominent campaigner on this issue in the Assembly, others – like Lynne Neagle AM (Lab, Torfaen) - have expressed concerns about a proposed open-cast mine near Fart Egg in her constituency, while protests against the Ffos-y-fran mine on the outskirts of Merthyr have rumbled for the best part of 25 years.

This isn't a particularly popular industry, regardless of whether it provides jobs or not.

This is why Wales can't have nice things....

Is this what we're getting?
Nope, think again....
(Pic :

There's been a clear lack of foresight by the local authorities, the mining companies and the Welsh Government which - unless a solution is found - could leave a scar on the landscape that will last generations.

Open-cast mines can be and are restored successfully, demonstrated (ironically) at Parc Slip.

The eastern half of Parc Slip open-cast, on the outskirts of Tondu, was fully restored in the 1980s-1990s and is now a popular nature reserve (pictured above). If you went there today you would barely know it used to be a mine. To the west, there's a poorly fenced-off moonscape and a massive hole filling with water. I don't know what East Pit is like, but I'm presuming it's similar.

There are obvious safety concerns.
Depending on the rocks around it, the water is likely to be either very acidic or very alkaline, so there's no way it can be treated to become a pleasant "lake". It'll either have to be back filled or pumped out and disposed of properly. The water's also so blue it looks like a tropical lagoon, but anyone tempted to take a dip during the summer would be swimming in bleach.

Back in 2013, Cllr. Luke Ellis (Lab, Pyle) warned people to stay away after reports of trespassing, but the water's even higher now. So greater efforts will need to be made to keep people away.

Then there's the flooding risk. It's taken about 5 years to fill 60-70 metres of mine workings. Judging by what I've seen there's only another two to three years left until there's a real threat the "lake" will be over-capacity.

If the "lake" breached, the River Kenfig (which is right next to the mine and the only obvious place for the water to go) is too small to cope, so it could cause flooding downstream in Pyle and North Cornelly. That's bad enough on it's own, but it would be an ecological disaster too, as polluted water will head for Kenfig Burrows - a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Open-cast mining is safer than drift and deep mining at the expense of the environment. Having said that, as long as power stations like Aberthaw and key industries like the Port Talbot steelworks continue to need coal, it's better to source that coal locally and move it by rail than import it.

In the medium to long-term, Aberthaw power station (and other coal-fired power stations around the UK) will either be replaced or close due to poor emissions standards, while TATA are/were considering opening a drift mine in Margam. Therefore, it looks as though open-cast doesn't have much of a future.

Celtic Energy and Oak Regeneration have been underhand, having sold NPT, BCBC and the Welsh Government magic beans. The latter can't say they weren't warned either.

This has always been about extending mining licences. The regeneration projects are a pipe dream that companies are under no obligation to deliver.
Housing developments, which Celtic Energy have been plugging since the AMs' intervention, are moot. Nobody seriously thinks Oak Regeneration - a company without a pot to piss in - would be able to oversee a garden village (which would probably cost £450-500million) at Parc Slip, do they? We'll be lucky if they grow trees there again.

So you can see what's going to happen. It'll either be left as it is for the foreseeable future and become a potential serious environmental hazard. Or, there'll be no choice but to extend mining licences to prevent NPT and BCBC, probably the Welsh Government too, being left with a massive clean up bill as Oak Regeneration go bust. I wouldn't want to see that happen because costs will be be passed on to taxpayers.

A Machiavellian part of me does want that to happen though, because the Welsh Government have been complacent on open-cast mining for years (minerals policy is devolved - MTAN). A nice big bill to bail out a dodgy offshore company would be just the kick up the backside they desperately need.

This is why I get annoyed when politicians say "sustainable" because, as the Welsh Government often prove, they don't practice what they preach. There's absolutely nothing "sustainable" about what's happening at Kenfig Hill.
Maybe they won't see open-cast as such a neighbourly industry anymore and start to think about proper regulation, including absolute cast-iron guarantees (perhaps backed by legislation) of financing for restoration projects before mining licences are granted.

Ultimately, the reason why governments introduce so much of the "obstructive red tape" businesses complain about is because some companies continuously breach the trust of local communities this way.

Right, what are we going to call it?

Lake Sargeant"? "Llyn Carwyn"?


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