By. Anthony Lewis
COUNCILLORS have decided to refuse plans for Ffos y Fran opencast mine in Merthyr Tydfil to keep operating until March 2024.
The application to vary a planning condition to allow mining there until March 31, 2024 was rejected by Merthyr Tydfil Council’s planning committee on Wednesday, April 26 in line with officers’ recommendations
This latest application sought to change a condition that all coal extraction shall stop no later than September 6, 2022.
The application was looking to allow for an extension to the lifespan of the mineral extraction and restoration with coal extraction to stop by March 31, 2024 and final restoration to be completed by June 30, 2026 (as opposed to the original date of December 31, 2024).
The report said this would allow for the remaining 240,000 tonnes of coal to be extracted with the main market being Tata Steel at Port Talbot but that it is also used by a variety of smaller markets including steam locomotives (heritage tailways) and steam engines/boilers as well as domestic heating within homes.
But planning officers said in their report that it fails to clearly demonstrate that the extraction of coal is needed to support industrial non-energy generating uses, that extraction is required in the context of decarbonisation and climate change emission reduction, to ensure the safe winding-down of mining operations or site remediation or that the extraction contributes to Welsh prosperity and a globally responsible Wales.
They also said it fails to provide an adequate contribution towards
the restoration, aftercare and after-use of the site, to the detriment of the
Welsh Government issued a direction to Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council that, unless authorised by Welsh ministers, the council can’t grant permission for the current application to extend the period of time coaling allowed on the Ffos-y-fran site.
Coal Action Network has previously raised concerns that mining has been happening on the site September 2022 when planning permission ended and in response to questions from councillors, a planning officer said that they would be reviewing the enforcement situation if the application was refused.
Committee heard that there is £15m in an Escrow account but that this won’t be enough to meet restoration costs with an officer estimating those costs to be between £75m and £125m.
Councillor Malcolm Colbran said that Ffos y Fran has provided good quality well paid jobs and benefits from the community fund but said it is “time for change.”
He said the world is much more aware of the effects of climate change and global warming.
He said Wales was the first nation to declare a climate emergency and for that to have any meaning they need to take action and leave fossil fuels behind.
He said they are the ones who make decisions and they are the ones who can make things happen and that he doesn’t believe the application meets the exceptional circumstances.
Councillor Clive Jones said there was “no evidence” to support of the applicant’s statements and he said the world certainly has moved on in the last 15 years.
He said climate change is with us and the whole world is trying to tackle it.
Councillor Declan Sammon said mining at the site has been controversial since day one and that people were assured it would be landscaped but there is not enough money to do this. He said it was a “mess” from the very beginning.
Councillor Kevin Gibbs said we are in the middle of a climate emergency and said the applicant has had 16 years to set money aside for the restoration.
He said he doesn’t see how a further 18 months which is now 12 months is going to make a difference.
Councillor Brent Carter said that honesty and integrity are values that the authority and companies should hold to the heart and Councillor John Thomas said local communities have benefited from the grants but with the climate issues he would be supporting the recommendation.
Planning permission for the operational surface coal mine at Ffos y Fran was
originally granted by what was then the National Assembly for Wales in April 2005.
This permission was then varied to permit the limited dispatch by road of up to 5% of the annual output of coal from the Ffos y Fran land reclamation scheme or a maximum of 50,000 tonnes of coal year (whichever is the lesser) via Cwmbargoed Disposal Point.”
When the application was originally submitted, the applicant sought to extend coal extraction to June 6, 2023 with final restoration to be completed by September 6, 2025 but in April 2023 the applicant’s agent wrote to the council to request the changed timings.
In terms of the justification for extending the life of the existing consent, the applicant initially submitted three grounds for variation of the conditions including: to allow for full extraction of the consented area (impacted by the working practices required by the Covid0-19 pandemic), to allow for continued provision of coal to the steel industry in Port Talbot [Tata Steel] to address security of energy supply arising from global market disruption and reduce the need to import coal from overseas and to allow for the preparation of a subsequent new planning application to address a three-year extension to coaling operations at the site to help with the security of energy supply issues affecting the steel industry in south Wales and to put a revised final site restoration plan in place.
But the applicant then said that a new application for an extension of coaling operations is not now proposed citing geotechnical issues, the cost of extraction and the price for steam coal as the reasons for this change.
Instead, the applicant is proposing to submit a hybrid application in Autumn 2023 seeking permission for an alternate restoration landform and subsequent after uses.
The planning report said: “A proposal for a subsequent application, which is at present no more than embryonic and lacks any detail, carries no weight in any event as even once finalised it would have to be determined on its own merits and the LPA could not prejudge the outcome.”
The council received 27 responses to the consultation between September and November 2022 which includes 26 objections and one letter of support.
The concerns raised were that any extension will be counter to Welsh Government policy on fossil fuels and climate change targets, that there is no need for the coal, a reduction in production during Covid is not an adequate excuse to continue operations and the noise, dust, blasting, health impacts and general disturbance for 15 years already.
Concerns were also raised over biodiversity, flooding, the completion of restoration, that the owners are excavating outside the permitted area, issues with the developer, grievances ignored by the council and devaluation.
The letter of support said Welsh steam coal is vital to Tata Steel works and the heritage railway movement across the UK.
It said that if coal has to be imported from Poland, Columbia, Australia,
Kazakhstan etc this will increase the carbon footprint.
It said that the heritage railways in the UK including a significant number in Wales attract a large number of tourists and create jobs.
On April 11 2023, a further period of consultation started, inviting responses
by no later than April 25 about the applicant’s proposed changes to the time periods and this consultation included letters to all of those who initially made representations on the application and 25 site notices.
Image: Free with LDRS Partners – Merthyr Tydfil Opencast Mine. Google Maps – Sparky