After destroying the coal-mining industry in the eighties, saying there was no market for British coal, the UK Government are now keen to facilitate high-profit, low- employment opencast mining. Ursula Wills-Jones looks at the hypocrisies and the environmentalist's response.
Squall 11, Autumn 1995, pg. 56.
Mining, unlike other industries, seems to possess a kind of mythical status in the national psyche. From a lethal, gaseous hell epitomising the horrors of the industrial revolution, it became a symbol of working class solidarity and of national pride and production.
Finally, it was mythologised as the socialist demon of the 1980s, and there it died. When Michael Heseltine shut down most of Britain's remaining deep coal pits in 1993 it was seen as marking the end of an era. The official line was that there was no more market for coal. The deep pits which fuelled Britain's industrialisation went, and with them, the country's strongest union, not to mention the heart and soul of dozens of communities. But replacing them is a new kind of coal mine. Opencast mines, vast holes in the ground from which coal is simply ripped out and carted off, are springing up in all the old coal mining areas.
One of these, Selar, near Neath in South Wales, has become the focus for protest against opencast. Among the locals' concerns, apart from the visual impact, is the effect on people's health. They believe that the dust from the mine and pollution from lorries will cause health problems like asthma. They also complain that property values have plummeted, and that other types of industry have been put off investing in the area. There are houses within 200 yards of the proposed site, a Site of Special Scientific Interest which contains mature oak trees and a colony of endangered butterflies. There was no planning enquiry into the proposal, and dozens of other opencast sites are proposed in the area.
In a neat parallel to the situation at Twyford Down which began the anti-roads movement, locals had been campaigning for years against the project but were largely beginning to feel that it was inevitable. Then, quite recently, members of the local Earth First! direct-action group moved in and set up a camp on the site, erecting tree houses, and the campaign took on a whole new lease of life.
One person who was glad to see the arrival of new protesters was retired lecturer Eric Evans, who has been campaigning against the opencast for years.
He describes the relationship between local people and the inhabitants of the camp as one of "mutual respect". The protesters claim they enjoy almost unanimous support from the local communities, with the majority of their food and equipment being donated by sympathetic villagers. "The way the local people have been dealt with is unbelievable. Local and national democracy has failed them badly," says Andy Lorax of Cardiff Earth First!
Selar has also attracted several international visitors. One of these is Daniel Zapata, a native American from the Black Mesa in Arizona.
He's in the UK campaigning against opencast mining on indigenous land by a British company, Hanson, and is keen to see the similarities between his own people's situation and that of the native 'Cymri'. "It's all native lands, I don't care what countries they say they are, it's all indigenous peoples' lands. We're all tribal people," he enthuses.
"When the miner comes up from the pit, his face is so pale it is noticeable even through the mask of coal dust. Their exhausted faces, with grime clinging in all the hollows, have a fierce, wild look," wrote George Orwell in 1937, describing the poverty, pollution and dangers which were the lot of mining communities.
If some of the locals are surprised to find themselves portrayed as an oppressed indigenous people, it's a perspective which makes a certain amount of sense to Eric Evans. "Only those who have been part of a community whose roots go back generations can appreciate the horrendous effect of opencast mining," he says. "It might be the disappearance of a familiar, beloved hill with all it's historical and childhood associations, or it might be old farms, fields, with their names in the Cymric language. Our history is being taken from us. It is that feeling of once being part of something which is then gone forever. It's like a death."
Another visitor has been a representative of a NGO which is fighting opencast mining in the Cordillera region of the Philippines, where the giant British mining corporation RTZ is planning to mine indigenous lands in search of gold and copper. The indigenous Igorot people of the area, who have practised small-scale, sustainable mining for centuries, would probably recognise the tactics of the Earth First! protesters camped at Selar. In the past they have repulsed other mining ventures by, among other tactics, erecting barricades and lying down in front of bulldozers.
Opponents of the corporations who want to opencast Igorot lands in the Philippines contrast traditional mining with the practices of the multi-national corporations. They say that indigenous mining methods use no chemicals, produce very little waste, and involve women in production. The proceeds are shared throughout the communities. Large-scale mining, on the other hand, uses cyanide and mercury, destroys forests, communities and culture, and gives work only to the men.
If this sounds like a familiar tale of third world folk, things don't change so much closer to home. Just down the road from Selar stands Tower Colliery, the only remaining deep mine in the area. Tower became the only worker- owned pit in Britain when its workforce pooled their redundancy money to buy it. Profitable, unionised, safe, and democratically run, Tower Colliery could eventually be threatened by cheaper coal from nearby open pits. In both cases, it seems hard not to conclude that a solution is being replaced by a problem.
The NUM, what's left of it, is unequivocally opposed to opencasting. Mick Appleyard, a former miner and trade union official from Garforth, near Leeds, is campaigning against a rash of opencast proposals in the old Yorkshire coalfields. "There are 17 million tons of imported coal coming into this country, and 17 million tons of opencast coal in Britain where greenfield sites are being ripped up. Heseltine closed 30 collieries which could have provided 34 million tons of coal at a low cost and kept the miners in work," he says. Opencast provides far fewer jobs than deep mining, one of the reasons is it is cheaper. Like campaigners in South Wales, he is more than happy to see direct action groups like Earth First! getting involved in the issue. In Yorkshire, there has already been one action at an opencast site which resulted in 19 arrests, and activists are planning more protests.
So, would Orwell recognise a miner in 1995? One thing is certain: he would find the poverty, unemployment and industrial illness which he recorded in 1937 there in plenty. But the foul air which poisoned the lungs is more likely to be above ground than below, and the only exhaustion is the result of surviving on the dole. As for those grimy faces with the fierce, wild look, he might just find them if he looked in the right place - probably chained to the underneath of a bulldozer.
Michael Heseltine: "Freemarket Nimby" - Entrepreneurs recently investigated the possibilities of an opencast mine in Hezza’s back garden. Johnny Minor tells it from the inside- Squall 11, Autumn 1995.