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UK's Largest Opencast Coal Mine Has Closure Date Confirmed

23 Aug 2023

What is happening?

Ffos-y-Fran, the UK’s largest opencast coal mine located in Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales, has received confirmation of its closure date after 15 years of operation. Its original planning permission in 2008 granted the mine 15 years of activity with a planned stop on 6 September 2023, to not permanently scar the landscape, and 2–3 years of restoration of the site supposed to take place after this date. Despite this, functions have continued since September, with September 2022 and April 2023 seeing a period of just under 200,000 tonnes of coal mined. Merthyr Ltd., the company overseeing the mine told the Merthyr Tydfil council on 15 August 2023 that operations will cease by 30 November.

The announcement of its final closure date comes after almost a year-long battle between Merthyr Ltd. and the local council: just days before its planning permission expired in September 2022, the mining company made a final effort by filing an appeal with the council for more time in operation. It was only in April 2023, though, that this appeal was processed but subsequently denied. 

Still, it has taken great pressure from the Coal Authority, the local council and other activists to force the mine to close. A visit by the Coal Authority on 19 May 2023 led Merthyr Ltd’s leaders to devise a closure plan by 7 July 2023 which never materialised. The Merthyr Tydfil Council similarly released an enforcement notice in late May to end coal extraction by July 7th, but again this was not complied with. Activists applied furthered such pressure on the mine: Extinction Rebellion blocked off the mine’s only road of access on 6 July 2023 to disrupt operations, and the Friends of the Earth Cymru urged the Welsh government to intervene and obstruct Merthyr Ltd. from going any further with their mining.

Those who arduously campaigned for the mine’s closure have responded to the final closure date with delight. Wales’ Green Party leader Antony Slaughter has hailed the planned closure as the beginning of a new chapter for the country, and has vocalised his vision for Wales to become a “renewables powerhouse”. Haf Elgar, leader of Friends of the Earth Cymru, has similarly noted the relief she felt following the announcement, and described it as “a strong and clear message” that coal mining will no longer be tolerated by Wales’ climate policy.

What is in it for you?

For our readers in Wales local to the mine, the planned final closure will come as good and bad news. Its abandonment will put an end to both noise and particle pollution, which locals have long resented. One resident, Chris Austin, told Wales Online that the noise from the mine was such that he and others could only sleep after 11 at night, the time at which the mine closed for the night. He also described inexorable dust which seemingly always found its way into his home.

The mine’s closure can thus be seen as the conclusion of 15 years of ‘slow violence’, a term coined by scholar Rob Nixon, which describes a type of violence which is drawn out over a long period of time and is  not acknowledged as violence in the traditional sense. In this example, such ‘slow violence’ can refer to the perpetual noise and particle pollution produced by the mine which has affected the residents, or the degradation of the landscape.

For those employed at the mine, however, its closure may cause great anxiety. Approximately 180 employees will be made redundant on 30 November 2023, to which an anonymous spokesperson for the Welsh government has expressed his “significant concern” for.  They have pledged to collaborate with the coal mine’s trade union to provide support following redundancy, however the mine’s closure will exacerbate unemployment in the region. 

On a larger scale, environmentalists will welcome the mine’s final closure, which embodies a positive shift towards achieving the energy transition. However, it has raised concerns that the UK will become dependent on overseas sources of coal. Whilst coal is now used minimally in the UK, producing just 2% of electricity in 2021 (via Ember), it remains in use nonetheless.

Janet Finch Saunders, a member of the Welsh Conservative Party, has argued that the mine’s closure will place environmental stress on a foreign coal producer. This should come as too much of a concern to our readers based in these coal producing countries mostly found in Asia-Pacific, though; the UK’s need for foreign coal is negligible and thus will not be accompanied by any significant increase in coal production.

What happens next?

Perhaps what represents the greatest challenge following the mine’s closure in November 2023 is the lengthy restoration process that will follow. Trade Union ‘Unite’ have said that leaders are holding talks with the local council over future restoration plans, yet there is great uncertainty that such plans will materialise. The Good Law Project have claimed that Merthyr Ltd. have invested just £15 million into the restoration fund, with the estimated figure for this project standing between £75 and £125 million. The planned mass redundancy adds further weight to the idea that a repair of the lands may not go ahead. A failure to restore the land would see 800 acres of exposed hillside for residents to have to unnecessarily live beside.

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