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Ffos-y-fran opencast coal mine pressures Council for extension in climate crisis

What's the Ffos-y-fran opencast coal mine?

Ffos-y-fran (pronounced in English as Foss-uh-vran and also known as the 'Ffos-y-Fran Land Reclamation Scheme') is a large opencast coal mine in Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales, mining primarily thermal coal. Mining company Merthyr Ltd (previously, Miller Argent) was awarded planning permission in February 2005 on appeal and began opencast coal mining. Planning permission for the opencast coal mining came to an end on 06th September 2022 (confirmed by Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council to Coal Action Network under a Freedom of Information request).

The two planning conditions that Merthyr Ltd are pressuring the Council to throw out are:

  • Condition 3 – “All coal extraction from the development hereby permitted shall cease no later than 06 September 2022”;
  • Condition 4 – “Final restoration of the land shall be completed no later than 06 December 2024 and aftercare shall be undertaken for a period of not less than 5 years upon certification of completion of each phase of the progressive restoration scheme.”

Merthyr Ltd want to delay its restoration responsibility and extend mining its dirty coal from the Ffos-y-fran opencast initially by 9 months (06 June 2023), but then by a further 3 years. The 9 month extension is to give the coal operator enough time to mine a further 240,000 tonnes of coal and submit an application for a 3 year extension but during this time, it’ll be mining as much coal as it can. See all the application documents at P/22/0237.

So, how does Merthyr Ltd seek to justify breaking its promise to the Council and local communities to restore and end opencast coal mining?

Covid19 and lockdowns:

In a personally signed letter to the Council, Merthyr Ltd’s Director, David Lewis, claims production was reduced due to lockdowns so not all the coal could be mined in the void that was expected to be by the deadline of the 06 September 2022, so a time extension should be awarded to “ensure the full reserve can be realised”.

There are two issues with the justification attempted in Lewis’s letter:

  1. The table of coal production and sales rates included on p20 of the Planning Statement indicate a reduction of 15-17% in total production which would not warrant a 3-year extension. It is also not clear why Merthyr Ltd still operated a single-shift pattern with reduced production for the first half of 2022 when lockdowns were not in place.
  2. As the letter itself states, the hole that reduced production from Ffos-y-fran left in the market in the past was filled by alternative sources. The hole is historical, to fill it with new coal mining, the coal would have to be put into a time-machine. Any new coal won’t be to plug old markets, but will supply new markets, continuing to lock industry in to more coal and more CO2. The letter’s attempted justification is based on a false premise.

£47 million short of a restoration

Via repeated Freedom of Information Requests, Coal Action Network eventually succeeded in forcing the Council admit only £15 million had been deposited by Merthyr Ltd into the escrow account for restoration. In 2018, restoration was estimated to cost £62 million, meaning there is roughly a £47 million shortfall (depending on how much of the site has been restored alongside coal mining since 2018). This is shortfall is highlighted by Merthyr Ltd in its Planning Statement for the time extension: “As the Council is fully aware, there are insufficient funds within the Escrow and restoration fund to allow for the full and successful implementation of the current restoration strategy for the site.”

Merthyr Ltd’s solution is “that the additional time to finish extraction and restoration will enable a more sustainable and modernised restoration scheme”. Although Merthyr Ltd promised to fund and carry out a restoration strategy as a condition to it gaining planning permission, the company now uses its failure to fulfil this condition as a reason to let it mine more coal. And by “modernised”, Merthyr Ltd almost certainly mean cheaper restoration scheme.

Merthyr Ltd transferred most the of the land ownership to Geraint Morgan Legacy Limited of which David Lewis is the sole Director. If the Council attempts to recover the £47 million shortfall for restoration, and Merthyr Ltd cannot pay, responsibility may lie with the landowner, which appears from its Companies House records to only have £2 million in the bank. Merthyr Ltd may reap the profits from years of mining, and the Council could be face bankruptcy to pay the remaining shortfall for restoration.

Similar situations have been seen with other mining companies (most notoriously by Celtic Energy) holding Councils to ransom for permitting more coal mining by threatening to fold or transferring the liability to shell companies, knowing Councils can’t afford to fund the massive costs involved in restoring ex-coal mining sites.

Just transition

Merthyr Ltd have known for years that planning permission at Ffos-y-fran would expire on 06 September 2022, yet attempts to leverage the fact that it has seemingly failed to support its workers to reskill or find alternative employment as a reason to extend the planning permission: “…it will ensure that current employees have a further 9 months to weather the cost of living crisis and look for alternative means of employment” (Planning Statement).

Incredulously, Merthyr Ltd even goes beyond this neglect towards its workers, to use its own lack of business strategy as it approached the known end of planning permission as a rationale for permitting the initial 9 month extension to allow “…the operators of the mine to look at other investment possibilities.”

Transport:

Merthyr Ltd’s Planning Statement attempts the justification commonly used be coal mining companies in the UK: “The transport emissions for each tonne of UK coal delivered to Port Talbot are typically five times lower than coal imported from abroad” and therefore, less CO2 is emitted overall if coal is mined and used in the UK. This argument relies on the idea that more coal mining in the UK would displace the same amount of coal being mined in another country, and the coal mined in the UK would be used in the UK.

  • This has been widely debunked, most prominently by LSE Economics Prof. Paul Ekins (OBE) in an interview, pointing out that coal mines abroad will find alternative markets for their coal, with the effect being an increase in the supply and use of coal globally and a net increase in CO2.
  • Transport emissions actually relatively minor compared to the CO2 emitted when coal is burned, so if increasing easily available coal in the UK leads to more being used, that would dwarf reduced transport emissions.
  • Most transport emissions are concentrated at points of extraction and end-use, which would be the same if it is mined on the other side of the world or nearby – so we would welcome disclosure of the methods behind calculations that transport emissions ‘typically 5 times lower’ for coal mined and consumed in the UK versus coal imported from abroad. It is also worth noting that most coal mines in the UK also export a proportion of their coal.

Coal-laden HGV leaving the Ffos-y-fran opencast coal mine on 13/09/2022

Coal types

Coal operators are notorious for making lofty claims about the unrivalled quality of coal they would mine—this is to circumvent the presumption against new coal extraction in planning decisions, hoping to fit into the loophole made for exceptional need and economic value.

Merthyr Ltd has rebranded its thermal coal as “dry steam coal”, a term that doesn’t seem to be widely used by anyone except Merthyr Ltd and its trade customers. In reality, this is just thermal coal, and used to be primarily sold to RWE’s Aberthaw coal-fired power station. However, Aberthaw had to stop burning coal from Ffos-y-fran to generate electricity because the European Court of Justice ruled the toxic nitrogen oxides it emitted were too high.

With the loss of this customer, Merthyr Ltd invested £10 million in machinery to refine some of its lower grade coal to ‘metallurgical’ coal that could be used in steelworks in 2015.

Markets

Merthyr Ltd has clearly been studying other coal mine applications in the planning system, and likewise in its Planning Statement emphasises Port Talbot Steelworks’ reliance on coal, claiming its thermal coal is needed in the vaguely worded “steel manufacturing process”.

  • Merthyr Ltd make no claims about what secure contracts it has with Port Talbot or Scunthorpe steelworks, nor what proportion of its coal sales this market accounts for.
  • It’s likely that some of the thermal coal from Ffos-y-fran is just burned to generate heat at the steelworks needed at various stages – coal which could be replaced with less polluting fuels and is often used in a blend with those other fuels.
  • TATASteel has announced that Port Talbot will be converted to electric Arc Furnaces with assistance from the Government, or face closure. In either scenario, this will largely nullify its demand for coal from Ffos-y-fran.

Changing the rules mid-way through the game

Like most coal operators, Merthyr Ltd (and former coal operators) like to change the rules along the way. The original coal operator agreed to all the conditions attached to the original planning permission in 2005, but in 2008, the coal operator wanted to rip up condition 37 requiring col to leave the site by freight train. The coal operator applied for a 'S73' change to use HGVs to transport 100,000 tonnes of coal each year by road, rather than rail. The company pragmatically reduced this to 50,000 tonnes but HGVs loaded with coal on the roads is dirty and dangerous, so the Council rejected the attempt to change this condition. The company didn’t accept this, and won the right to change this condition on appeal in May 2011 (APP/U6925/A/10/2129921)

Merthyr Ltd want to change the rules again with this 'S73' application for a time extension to mine more coal and delay the promised restoration. Each time the coal operators change the rules, it’s inevitably the local communities living in Merthyr Tydfil that pay the price. Enough is enough.

Published 14/09/2022
Edited 11/10/2022

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James Burke
James Burke
1 year ago

Has the local council actually approved the initial time extension.?

Anne
Editor
1 year ago
Reply to  James Burke

Not yet. We’re trying to make sure they don’t.

Sian Bevan
10 months ago
Reply to  Anne

Hi, I really hope it is declined it is a Dirty, unhealthy business, these people are greedy, it should not be allowed they had their time, and now it is up.

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