'The whole house vibrated': The residents living with the mess of opencast mines

Rhys Williams reports on the communities in South Wales living with the injustice of mining companies not cleaning up the mess they've made, leaving behind huge craters of opencast mines in the landscape

The dark days of mining disasters and strikes may be a thing of the past in Wales, but communities across the south Wales valleys are living with another injustice: mining companies making money from coal, while they are left to deal with the mess.

The South Wales Coalfield contains significant reserves of good quality coal well suited to extraction by opencast methods.

This is where coal is mined from an open pit in the ground. These mines leave behind large craters which disrupt the natural landscape, contaminate the soil and disturb habitats.

Mining companies are legally obliged to restore these sites once mining is complete. In essence, the “overburden”, which is moved in order to access the coal, should be placed back into the hole created when mining is completed.

But the history of opencast mine restoration in Wales is generally one of failure, with several being abandoned.

Chris and Alyson, who put up with poor conditions in Ffôs y Fran for years, say mining companies' reluctance to backfill the enormous crater left behind was the ultimate insult.

The root of this failure lies in the way the industry was privatised in 1995. Private companies were allowed to pay a larger initial cash price to buy a mine in exchange for a 10-year reprieve from paying into a restoration fund.

Without the mandatory setting aside of funds, many companies relied on income from new mining, to pay for the restoration of old mining. But as demand (and prices) for domestic coal declined, some coal mine operators either declared bankruptcy, or simply failed to restore sites as promised.

When it was privatised, the British Coal opencast operation in South Wales was acquired by newly formed company Celtic Energy Ltd.

Many have been campaigning for mining companies to backfill the enormous craters left behind. Credit: ITV News

In 2010, the company sold four mines and the liabilities to companies in the British Virgin Islands for £1 a mine, before drawing up new restoration plans at a fraction of the cost.

Five senior company executives walked away with millions of pounds. They were charged with fraud, but a judge threw out the case, saying that while some might regard their actions as “dishonest” they were not technically illegal.

Celtic Energy told ITV News in a statement that it "has always been committed to providing pragmatic restoration solutions, with the full agreement of relevant local authorities, whilst working to ensure a long-term sustainable legacy of well-paid jobs in the area after many generations of reliance on coal as the principal source of employment."

The end result of this very homegrown problem has meant years of broken promises to communities who now have to live with ugly (and sometimes dangerous) old mining sites.

'These people can do what they like,' says ex-mining employee Lee Reynolds in Onllwyn.

In Margam, near Port Talbot, local residents were promised an international tourism destination. What they got was a pool of filthy water.

In East Pit in the Aman Valley, when mining stopped a decade ago, the owners promised a £40 million country park. Today, it too is a crater full of water surrounded by rusting industrial equipment.

At Ffôs y Fran near Merthyr, the £62 million restoration of the site should have been completed by the end of 2022 but the mining operator, Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd, has only set aside £15 million. The company has also applied for an extension, claiming this is necessary to pay for the restoration it originally promised to deliver.

The end result of this failure is ruined landscapes and disregarded communities. Communities who put up with decades of dust and noise in the expectation that mines would be restored, only to receive one final insult.

Celtic Energy said in a statement that the "Selar site has completed restoration and is now waiting for the final pieces of rehabilitation to be agreed by the local authority... which holds a cash ‘bond’ which covers costs for all required, outstanding work."

It added that "East Pit has also completed restoration and, similarly, the local authority... holds a cash ‘bond’ in relation to the site", while Margam has "not been owned by the company for over 10 years and its history is well documented".

The company said the Nant Helen Opencast site was "purchased in its entirety last year... by GCRE Co. Ltd, the Welsh Government’s wholly owned organisation which intends to develop a Global Centre of Rail Excellence".

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