Ffos-y-Fran: The unanswered questions about the UK's biggest opencast coal mine

Ffos-y-Fran in Merthyr Tydfil produces two-thirds of the UK's coal

A senior politician has demanded answers from the Welsh Government over concerns about the extraction of coal at one of Europe's biggest opencast mines.

Ffos-y-Fran in Merthyr Tydfil produces two-thirds of the UK's coal and was due to close in September 2022 after permission for work to be carried out there was refused.

But, the site's owners have continued extracting coal whilst it appeals the decision.

The letter, sent by Llyr Gruffydd MS, who is chair of the Senedd's Climate Change Committee sets out a number of key questions the Welsh Government are yet to give clarity on, including the environmental impact and the effect on the local community.

It's the latest effort on a near year-long battle by campaigners, politicians and local residents to get the company who run the mine to stop extracting coal.

  • What is Ffos-y-Fran?

The Ffos-y-Fran opencast coal mine is the biggest of its kind in the UK.

It opened back in 2007 with a 15-year licence to extract coal from the site, just outside of Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales.

The mine is a major employer in the area, with around 180 members of staff.

It is currently run by Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd whose extraction licence for the site expired in September 2022.

Coal that was mined at Ffos-y-Fran near Merthyr Tydfil.

South Wales is famous for its significant reserves of good quality coal which is 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.

Surface mines, like Ffos-y-Fran, are primarily regulated by local authorities through planning permission and enforcement.

But any potential operators still require approval for a coal mining licence from the Coal Authority, Natural Resources Wales and the Health and Safety Executive.

The Ffos-y-Fran site currently has a coal mining licence until February 2097.

  • Why is it so controversial?

Despite Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd's licence to continue extracting from Ffos-y-Fran expiring ten months ago, locals and campaigners say the operation has carried on.

This has led to several protests, with the most recent one happening on 2 June when Extinction Rebellion activists formed a blockade by ‘locking on’ to make themselves irremovable.

Protesters lit flares and held signs saying: "Coal is our heritage not our future" and "No jobs on a dead planet".

This protest followed Merthyr Tydfil Council’s rejection of an application to extend the mine’s permission to operate made by its owners in April.

Extinction Rebellion activists disrupted the Ffos-y-Fran colliery near Merthyr Tydfil by blocking the access between the mine and its depot. Credit: ITV Wales

The council's decision to close the mine was welcomed by First Minister Mark Drakeford.

In 2021, The Welsh Government said ministers "do not intend to authorise new Coal Authority mining operation licences or variations to existing licences."

The Welsh Government does, however, have a number of strict guidelines which they say will allow them to consider issuing or extending a license in "exceptional circumstances".

One of the conditions includes ensuring "the safe winding-down of mining operations or site remediation".

Protesters held signs saying, "coal is our heritage not our future" and "no jobs on a dead planet". Credit: ITV Wales

The people living near Ffos-y-Fran are also facing the prospect of living with an eye-sore on the local landscape long after the machinery has been turned off.

The restoration of the site should have been completed by the end of 2022 but Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd has only set aside £15 million for that work.

The Climate Change Committee in the Senedd estimate the actual remediation costs could be as much as £125 million.

Chris and Alyson Austin, who have lived near Ffôs y Fran for years, spoke to ITV News in March of this year and described "the whole house vibrating" due to the ongoing work.

Alyson said: "They know the profits they've been making, they know the price of coal. They know that these companies are using [remediation] to get another three years coaling from the site."

Chris said: "We fought fiercely to stop this happening. This community didn't want [the mine].

Chris and Alyson say mining companies' reluctance to backfill the enormous crater left behind was the ultimate insult. Credit: ITV News

"The only benefit that was sold to us was the restoration of the site and now even that's been taken away from us."

The company has applied for an extension to complete to remediation work, claiming this is necessary to pay for the restoration it originally promised to deliver.

A recent inspection of the Ffos-y-Fran site by the Coal Authority revealed that the operator has been coaling outside of their licence boundary, leading to enforcement action being taken.

This all comes within the context of the climate emergency. Ultimately, the Welsh Government want to avoid the continued extraction and consumption of fossil fuels.

The key target Wales is working towards is net zero carbon emissions by 2050, part of which includes ensuring carbon that is emitted to power Wales isn't simply exported abroad.

  • What's the latest?

The Senedd's Climate Change Committee has raised several issues with the ongoing situation Ffos-y-Fan site.

The committee's chair, Llyr Gruffydd MS, has written to the Welsh Government to seek "clarification" on the matter.

Chair of the Climate Change Comittee, Llyr Gruffydd, has written to the Climate Change Minister with a number of questions about the mine. Credit: ITV Wales/Sharp End

In the letter, Mr Gruffydd claims the company have been "extracting almost 200,000 tonnes of coal in the months following the expiry of its planning permission."

Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd has appealed an enforcement notice to stop coal extraction but the committee say that would "allow the mine to continue operating for another year or more."

Among the questions raised where concerns about the environmental impacts from continuing to extract coal, whether the work will continue during the appeal process and how the staff will be supported once the site closes.

In a strongly-worded closing paragraph, Mr Gruffydd said: "the Welsh Government must clarify its position to maintain public trust, and must ensure its actions align with its commitments to addressing climate change and protecting the environment."

  • What is the government saying?

Whilst the Welsh Government have previously said raised their own concerns about the site and made their feelings about its potential closure clear, they are yet to respond directly to the Climate Change Committee's letter.

A spokesperson said: “The Minister for Climate Change received the letter from the Chair of the Climate Change Committee and will respond in due course”

In response to the allegation regarding mining outside of the site's boundary, the Coal Authority said: "We have contacted the operator and begun enforcement action to end coaling in this wider area in line with our legislative powers. 

"We will continue to provide advice and expertise to Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council, Welsh Government and other partners as needed."

The letter said the "Welsh Government must clarify its position to maintain public trust". Credit: ITV Wales

The mine's owners, Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd, have been approached for comment.

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