Mining coal hurts communities, kills wildlife and destroys the countryside while burning it significantly contributes to climate change.
The UK has 9 coal fired power stations. Those remaining have no closure plans although two are hoping to convert to biomass and the government ran a consultation into proposals to end electricity generation through burning coal in 2025.
There are no underground coal mines in the UK, of significant size. Kellingley Colliery in Yorkshire was the last to close, in December 2105. In September 2016 there were officially 15 opencast coal mines, although a few of these are no longer extracting coal, just selling off previously mined coal. There are a number of potential new opencast coal sites with planning permission which have not been started. The delays have been for a variety of reasons including lack of demand for coal in Scotland (Glentaggart East), disagreement over planning conditions by multiple land owners (George Farm) and the Coal Authority’s concern over bonds for restoration (Bryn Defaid), in addition to sites at Bradley and Shortwood Farm for which permission was granted to a now liquidated company, UK Coal.
In 2008, far more coal was mined in Scotland than England and Wales combined, yet now there is only one opencast coal mining operating, House of Water.
Coal in the UK is on a downwards trend, with power stations and mines closing. New European Directives on air pollution require all power stations to reduce their emissions of sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide and particulate matter, not carbon dioxide, which means that power stations will have to fit new equipment or close. The impacts of Brexit on this legislation is not yet clear. Coal Action Network is pushing for the power stations to close.
Although the number of applications to mine coal in the UK have dropped in recent years, communities living close to coal extraction are still dealing with the potential to loose access to wild places, local wildlife, open countryside, views from their homes and have it replaced with damage to their health, increased HGVs on the roads, noise, dust preventing windows being opened or clothes dried outside, light pollution and the potential for 24 hour working on sites. Additionally many communities are struggling against unwilling councils to try to get sites restored after they have been abandoned by mining companies as they stopped proving profitable. There are still 4 communities with planning applications hanging over them.
For many community struggles against coal, the fight is as much about self-determination as any impact the development may have. Most councils pay lip-service to planning policy that presumes against open cast projects and favour mining companies over constituents. Even when a council listens to the people and rejects an open cast application, there can be years of appeals and high court challenges. When it comes to coal production in the UK, little stands in the way of the coal companies.
Impacts on communities near open cast coal mines include:
Pollution – Noise from blasting and operating plant machinery such as dump trucks and excavators with affect near-by residents and wildlife, and diesel fumes from machinery and coal-transporting trucks will affect the health of local communities.
Traffic– Lorries transporting coal from the mines to railheads or power stations make the roads more dangerous, degrade roads and spread diesel fumes far and wide putting children and residents at risk.
Jobs and the local economy – Few open cast coal mines create jobs locally. The industry is so mechanised that hardly any employees are needed to operate the mine, and most open cast workers commute from outside local areas. Jobs are usually short-term and on a temporary basis and conditions are poor and dangerous. Genuine investment and job-creation in these communities would definitely not be in the form of open cast coal mines.
Giving back to the community? – Community trust funds are often established, but do they actually give back? Usually, around 25p per tonne of coal is donated to a community trust fund – compare that to the £118 per tonne that coal was priced at in 2009 which has fallen to £38 per tonne now. Councils and land owners are given substantially more by mine operators. The trust funds are often poorly managed, monopolised by the coal companies and give the community little say as to how the money is spent.
Most of the coal burnt in the UK’s power stations is imported from Russia and Colombia. The human rights situations in the coal producing regions of these countries are poor. In both countries indigenous and settled communities are being moved off their land to make way for ever expanding mines. In Colombia communities have been moved with physical force. In Russia arson has been used to move villages from coal fields. In both countries pollution of the water courses is a significant issue. In Russia 93% of the ground water in the Kuzbass, the main coal producing region for export, is contaminated according to government sources. In Colombia water starved communities are surviving on less than a litre of water a day, while the mining companies are trying to divert rivers to remove the coal beneath them.
Recent studies have shown that exposure to dust and diesel fumes from heavy machinery on open cast coal mines can cause striking ill health in near-by communities, with increased prevalence of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, certain cancers and asthma. Mining companies and local councils, however, refuse to acknowledge this or even take appropriate measures to record dust levels, showing that they have no regard for the health of communities, where the profit of a coal-mining company is concerned.
See the Coal Health Study for more information, and Dr. Dick Van Steenis’s work.
Open cast sites and power stations are often sited on wooded areas, on or near Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and in ecologically sensitive areas with protected species. They tear up the landscape, literally turning it upside-down, and drive away wildlife.
As recent example, at UK Coal’s Blair Farm open cast coal mine in Fife Great Crested Newts, a European Protected Specie were present on the site, and mitigation in the form of relocation proposed by UK Coal undoubtedly resulted in the destruction of the newt population as their habitat shrank. The area to be mined includes the Black Wood Wildlife site, designated as an area that once had ancient woodland and was home to birch forests and oak trees. There were orchids present on the site and the site was also important for the diversity of breeding birds and wintering birds, with common snipe occurring in significant numbers during the winter. Bats are known to feed in the area and red squirrels were present in the north-east of the site, as well as Brown hares, listed on the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. The Cowstrandburn river is also being diverted along with other watercourses in the area. Scottish Coal bought the site from UK Coal in 2010, and since running into financial difficulty have mothballed the site, raising fears that it’ll never get restored.
Coal is the most carbon intensive of all fossil fuels. It is nearly all carbon, so it releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide when burned. Coal is mainly burned for electricity generation, which is the largest source of UK greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 30% of the UK’s generation in 2014. This was a new low for the first time becoming equal to the contribution from gas. Coal and biomass fired power stations are more CO2 intensive than any other type. Coal has been a key factor in the overall rise in UK emissions. If we are to cut those emissions, we must to stop burning coal, and if we are to encourage other countries to stop, we certainly shouldn’t be planning to burn more.
The coal industry is touting ‘Carbon Capture and Storage’ as a solution, claiming the carbon produced when coal is burned can be captured, then stored safely. However, the industry itself admits the technology to do this does not exist, and will not be ready for at least 15 years even if they can make it work. The scientific consensus is that our emissions must be falling quickly by 2015, so 15 years is too late. Emissions reductions due to CCS virtually don’t figure on government projections any more. The carbon capture/clean coal myth has finally been defeated, it seems.
The biosphere has already captured and stored millions of tonnes of carbon – as fossil fuels like coal. Instead of putting this carbon into the atmosphere, we need to leave it in the ground.
For more information on carbon capture and storage (CCS) and other capitalist technofixes, see Corporate Watch’s excellent report.
In the face of reversed planning decisions, destroyed countryside, short sighted policy and hypocrisy, ordinary people have been taking action in extraordinary ways. Community-based campaigns have fought hard against planning applications and corruption in local councils and government. Opencast sites have been occupied, coal trains stopped, power stations blockaded and invaded. Coal bosses have been targeted and their offices picketed, all efforts to disrupt coal power stations and bulk transport and the day-to-day local work to stop new coal developments from happening in our communities.
From South Wales to Southern Scotland, groups are emerging as part of a growing, international movement defending communities and the climate from new coal. When faced with a system that won’t listen to its people and is disregarding the science in the face of the single biggest threat to our climate, discontent is growing and action is being taken. To get involved in groups active against new coal in your area, see Campaigns Across the UK.