On 17 August 2020, coal production in County Durham ended after hundreds of years. The Bradley mine, however, which was the scene of the last coal extraction, was not a mine in the real sense. It was what is called these days a ‘surface’ mine – what we used to call open-cast mining – and it was always frowned upon by pit communities and miners.
Open-casting is noisy and it throws all kinds of dirt into the surrounding air. As a result, it is linked with many chronic breathing and lung conditions, not so much for the workers who drive the machines at the cast site but for the inhabitants of the local towns and villages. General secretary of the Durham Miners’ Association Alan Mardghum is among those who have backed the campaign against the continuance and expansion of open-casting in the area.
Bradley mine’s owners, the Banks group, had applied to vastly expand the area of land on which they were open-casting, but they were turned down by the planners following a deluge of complaints and a vocal campaign run jointly by local householders, hundreds of ex-deep miners, and members of the Extinction Rebellion doom cult (XR).
The Banks group’s directors said that without the expansion, which they estimated would extract around 90,000 tonnes of coal annually, coal production in the area would no longer be financially viable, meaning the loss of several dozen jobs.
Demand for coal persists, but British mines remain closed
Although household reliance on coal has dropped dramatically in recent years, down from providing 40 percent of Britain’s electricity as recently as 2012 to just 2 percent last year, British industry still has a “significant demand … for the coal and fireclay that we produce”, according to Banks group executive director Gavin Styles.
The British government has made a pledge to ban household coal by 2023 and to phase out coal power entirely by 2024, but that target seems unlikely to be met at the moment.
That coal is still needed in Britain is highlighted by the fact that 600,000 tons of Australian coal was imported to the UK in 2019, and a similar amount made the 9,000 mile trip to Britain last year. The CO2 emissions from that journey alone, not to mention the 2.8 tons emitted per ton when burnt, has to give it one of the worst carbon footprints of any fuel.
A spokesman for British Steel, which buys much of that Australian coal, said it makes up 30 percent of the company’s needs, but (with a straight face) that it was trying to cut down the amount coming from Australia and that most of its coal now comes from America instead! Coal is also imported to Britain from South Africa, Russia, Canada, China and Colombia, among other countries.
Yet we have hundreds of thousands of tons of coal underground that could meet our needs for many years and most of it needs to be deep-mined, which keeps most of the harmful dusts and gases underground.
To get this coal out of the ground and to use the clean-coal technology for its use (as proposed by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) back in the 1980s and 90s) would create very many jobs and help the country to become self-sufficient in energy, as well as obviating the ridiculous waste in shipping coal from thousands of miles away.
Until we have the technology and capacity to safely leave fossil fuels behind forever, this is clearly far saner than importing coal from the other side of the world.
What is lacking? Only the political will.