Political Editor Adrian Masters reports
Coal from a controversial opencast mine is being transported along rail track belonging to the Welsh Government, ITV News Wales has learned.
Work was supposed to have ended at Ffos-y-Fran last September when its planning permission expired but the company has continued to extract coal while it fights the decision.
Research by ITV News Wales has established that the railway line track used to take the coal from near where it's extracted belongs to the Welsh Government body Transport for Wales.
Campaigners and politicians that we've spoken to for this report are calling for the Welsh Government to step in to prevent the line being used.
The Welsh Government said it was unable to comment because doing so may jeopardise any future decisions it has to make.
The Ffos-y-Fran opencast coal mine is the biggest of its kind in the UK.
It opened in 2007 with a 15-year licence to extract coal from the site, just outside Merthyr Tydfil. It's 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.
Despite that, digging has continued at the site while the firm challenged orders to cease from both the local authority and the Coal Authority which issues mining licences.
Merthyr (South Wales) was approached for comment.
Most of the coal mined at Ffos-y-fran is removed by rail. It’s separated and washed at the mine's privately owned washing facility at Cwmbargoed.
It then leaves the site and is switched onto the Cwmbargoed branch, which is the only freight-only line in use on the Core Valley Lines (CVL).
While most rail track here in Wales is controlled by Network Rail, the Core Valley Lines are now the responsibility of ministers in Cardiff Bay after the infrastructure was transferred in 2020 from Network Rail to Transport for Wales (TfW) which is wholly owned by the Welsh Government.
The track is operated by Amey Infrastructure Ltd. on behalf of TfW.
Amey is bound both by a contract it has with Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd and a general requirement to grant access to freight operators.
Once the coal leaves private land it travels along the Cwmbargoed branch line to Ystrad Mynach and then the Rhymney Valley line until it leaves the CVL after Queen Street Station in Cardiff where it joins the Network Rail line.
The train company’s not doing anything wrong - just fulfilling a contract. It’s the use of the track in the first place that’s being questioned by those that we’ve been speaking to.
Alyson and Chris Austins live near the mine and have been campaigning against it since it was first announced in 2004.
But they say they weren't aware of who owned the track until we spoke to them.
Chris Austin said: "It's a shocker to be honest with you. I mean, it's obvious when you say it, but we never thought of it for for a minute, that they [the Welsh Government] would have any powers over the rail side of things. We thought it was a private rail track."
Alyson Austin said: "This is another area where they could choose to act. They’re choosing not to do.
"They could choose to stop this at any point. If they are serious about tackling climate change, they need to put everything they've got into dealing with this and they’re doing nothing."
Anthony Slaughter, leader of the Welsh Green Party acknowledged that “The legalities would be quite complex" but he said the Welsh Government should step in.
"It's another lever that could be used and it's almost as if there's this desire to get as much coal out of the ground as possible before it really does have to stop.”
The Plaid Cymru MS, Llŷr Gruffydd, is the Chair of the Senedd’s Climate Change Committee who recently wrote to the Welsh Government asking what it was doing to resolve the Ffos-y-Fran situation.
In response to the information that we've established, he said that “By allowing the company to use the rail infrastructure I'm sure some people will feel that the Welsh Government is effectively facilitating the continued extraction of coal from Ffos-y-Fran and that of course is happening beyond the original planning permission.
"So, this again raises further questions for me and for the committee about the whole situation. It once again underlines the need for greater transparency and greater agency in dealing with what is clearly a fraught legal situation, but it's a situation that also has environmental consequences and has a continued impact on the local community.
"We've written to the Minister. We're expecting a response within the next few weeks, but obviously this now adds another element again.”
Welsh ministers including Mark Drakeford have previously welcomed the decision to stop mining at Ffos-y-Fran.
The First Minister told BBC Wales that "We should not be extracting finite resources from the globe in an era of climate change.”
The Welsh Government has previously stated: "Our position is clear – we want to bring a managed end to the extraction and use of coal. We are in a climate and nature emergency and the response must be swift and serious so we can pass on a Wales we are proud of to future generations."
Points raised in this article were put to the Welsh Government but it didn't respond to them directly.
A spokesperson said: "We are unable to comment at this stage, as to do so may jeopardise any future decision Welsh Ministers may have to make on the matter."
The Welsh Conservatives say that the company should be allowed to continue to use the rail link and should be allowed to continue mining.
Shadow Climate Change minister Janet Finch-Saunders says that "Ffos-y-Fran is being caught up in the wider question for all of Wales: ‘Does coal still have an important role to play in our community and economy?’ The answer today must be yes.
And she added that "It is all well and good Mark Drakeford stating that we should not be extracting finite resources from the globe in an era of climate change, but the reality of Wales today is that we cannot simply stop using coal now.
“Between January and March 2023 66,357 tonnes was produced in Merthyr Tydfil. That’s the highest volume of any mine in the UK. I am genuinely concerned that should the supply from Ffos-y-Fran be lost, we will simply become even more reliant on imports.
“Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru need to recognise that it is completely irresponsible to pursue policies that offshore carbon footprints to other, usually far poorer and less developed nations, than ours.
“The reality is that our economy and country currently needs coal, so that which we use should be sourced from our land, support our communities, and our workforce, not line the pockets of foreign nations. Welsh Government should continue to let the company use the train tracks, and look to support coal extraction in Wales.”
Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know...