UK's last opencast coal mine closes amid row over clean-up bill

Britain’s last opencast coal mine closes as row begins with operator over site clean-up bill that could hit £175million

  • The giant opencast coal mine at Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales will close today
  • Estimated clean-up costs are believed to vary between £120m and £175m

The UK’s last opencast coal mine closes today seven months after being refused an extension – but there are now fears about how the massive site will be restored.

The giant Ffos-y-Fran mine, near Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales, is the size of 400 football pitches and about 656ft (200m) deep.

Estimated clean-up and land restoration costs are said to vary between £120m and £175m but most recent accounts for the mining firm’s parent company from 2021 suggest only £71.4m was budgeted, it was reported today.

The site’s operator, Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd, said it was in ‘constructive dialogue’ with Merthyr Tydfil council about what will now happen to the land.

Roy Thomas, 80, who lives metres from the mine’s boundary and breeds Welsh mountain ponies, told the BBC the mine had been ‘a total blight’ on his life for the past 16 years and described it as a ‘neighbour from hell’.

He said action must be taken to clean up the enormous pit.

The giant Ffos-y-Fran mine, near Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales, is the size of 400 football pitches and about 656ft (200m) deep

The site’s operator, Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd, said it was in ‘constructive dialogue’ with Merthyr Tydfil council about what will now happen to the land

Mr Thomas said its current state is ‘absolutely disgusting’. He called for the ‘millions of tonnes of material of spoil material’ to go back in and fill the giant crater.

Meanwhile, Chris and Alyson Austin, from Merthyr Friends of the Earth, told Wales Online that the owners should not be allowed to ‘just leave’.

Mrs Austin said: ‘We don’t want them to just leave. We want them to restore the site! The company was given permission to mine here on the condition that the site was fully restored afterwards and handed back to the community.

‘The sign at the entrance says ‘Ffos y Fran Land Reclamation Scheme.’ The ‘reclamation’ promised meant returning the land to a better, usable state, not leaving us with a huge, horrible mess. It must be restored, otherwise it will be an ugly, dangerous place, rather than an amenity we can enjoy!’


Mr Austin added: ‘It makes my blood boil. We’re told the company can’t afford to restore the site, that over the years they’ve failed to put money aside for this, as they were contractually obligated to do. They have made huge amounts of money over the years from the coal mining; where has it all gone?

‘What message does this send out? That you can do business, make money, and not honour your obligations to the detriment of local people. That you can continue to work against the direct instructions of the local authority and our elected representatives with seeming impunity? It sets a terrible precedent.’

The BBC reported how it has seen documents which show concerns at the Welsh government and UK Coal Authority that Merthyr Tydfil’s Ffos-y-Fran mine may be abandoned.

The Welsh government had only allowed the controversial project – close to homes and businesses – because the land was previously an industrial site and it would count as a ‘land reclamation scheme’, restoring the area to green hillside once coal had been extracted.

The Unite trade union, which represents 115 mine workers who are being made redundant, said it believed the operator would not walk away because it has been ‘committed’ to land restoration.

After a year’s preliminary work, Ffos-y-Fran opened in 2008 and has produced nearly 11.25m tonnes of coal since then. It has been responsible for 86% of the UK’s recent total coal output.

Concerns about the restoration were revealed in a letter from the UK Coal Authority’s chief executive, Lisa Pinney, to the Welsh government on October 20, released under the Freedom of Information Act.

Ms Pinney said there had been ‘very little visible progress’ in preparing for the mine’s closure and ‘no agreed revised restoration plan or emergency response plan in place if the site should be abandoned’.

Issues needing to be resolved include managing rising water levels. Without a clear plan, ‘there is a clear risk to public safety and to the environment’, Ms Pinney wrote.

Another document released to campaigners from Coal Action Network was officials advising Welsh climate change minister Julie James and First Minister Mark Drakeford.

In the heavily redacted document, officials warned the mine company was ‘likely to seek administration’ – or may ‘seek to continue to restore the site’ using money from a £15m bank account held by Merthyr Tydfil Council as a fall-back fund should the mining firm go bust.

Daniel Therkelsen of Coal Action Network said failure to go ahead with a full restoration would amount to a ‘betrayal to the 140,000 people in Merthyr Tydfil’ who had already ‘paid the price for the restoration promised to them with over 16 years of coal dust and noise pollution’.

Mine owner Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd said it continued to hold ‘constructive dialogue with [Merthyr Tydfil Council] and other relevant stakeholders on the revised restoration plan’.

Unite spokesman’s Jason Bartlett said the closure was ‘heart-breaking’ for the workers involved.

Although there could be some jobs once the restoration plan had been negotiated, he said the number would ‘depend on what the plan looks like’.

Merthyr Tydfil Council said negotiations to reach a ‘revised restoration plan’ had been ongoing for more than year.

A Welsh government spokesperson said: ‘Welsh Ministers cannot comment on individual cases as the Welsh government has a formal role in determining planning enforcement appeals.’

The Coal Authority said its role in Ffos-y-Fran’s restoration was limited to an ‘advisory’ capacity.

Earlier this year, Mr Drakeford told of the importance of restoring the site.

He said: ‘There is a genuine danger, given the history, that the site might simply be abandoned. If that happens, there are a series of immediate perils that we will have to be alert to.

‘There is the whole potential for flooding, if pumps that currently are on the site are removed or switched off.

‘There is ground stability to be thought of, if machinery that is currently used at the site is removed from it. There are old workings on the site that will need to be attended to. There will be no security on the site if it is simply abandoned.’

A spokesman for Merthyr (South Wales) – refused a retrospective planning application in April to extend use of the site – said: ‘We will continue to hold constructive dialogue with Merthyr Tydfil council and other relevant stakeholders on the revised restoration plan.

‘There will be no further comment until the plan is finalised and approved by the relevant parties.’

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