[This article was originally published on Saturday 22 September 2012 in the Western Mail]
One year on from the Gleision colliery disaster, the physical dangers associated with coal mining have been well documented. Meanwhile, sites across the South Wales Valleys are being considered for ‘safer’ open-cast mines, with developers promising jobs and prosperity for local communities. Professor Malcolm Prowle has spent 30 years studying the impacts of large scale industrial projects and feels that Wales is standing at a cross-roads.
Open-cast mining has always been a part of the UK coal mining industry, even though it is a very different industry, but with the virtual disappearance of deep mining it now holds a dominant position. In Wales, as in other parts of the UK, there has been an upsurge of open-cast mining with seven open cast sites currently in operation, employing around 685 people across the South Wales Valleys. Additional sites at Nant Llesg, near Rhymney; Bryn Pica, north of Aberdare and Nant y Mynydd in Torfaen are in planning or under appeal.
Proposals for new open-cast mining sites are usually very controversial, with strong opposition voiced by local residents. Proponents, however, make huge claims for the benefits of such developments and the politicians are left to weigh up the pros and cons.
The key benefit of open-cast mining is largely to do with creating jobs. Typically, an open cast mine will result in 200+ new jobs, often in areas of high unemployment. The creation of jobs will also have a ‘multiplier effect’, as these employees spend money in local shops and use local services. However, the magnitude of this multiplier will vary from case to case.
The main concern around the new jobs argument is that numbers have historically been exaggerated by developers and there is no mechanism for enforcement at a later stage. What is clear, however, is that the bulk of the jobs will be for men, a proportion of which will be temporary posts connected with site construction and a substantial number will be filled by transfers from elsewhere in the company, or from other areas, and may not constitute ‘new’ jobs at all.
Another concern is the commercial viability of the projects themselves. Usually, the aim is to extract coal over a period of 15-20 years but looking at the current and projected state of the energy market, and the environmental pressures on the use of coal, there are concerns over whether coal can sustain its current price over the long term. A significant drop in the price of coal would mean that new open-cast operations can quickly become unsustainable and may have to be curtailed early with the subsequent loss of jobs. In fact, this tipping point may already have been reached. Only this month the Aberpergwm Colliery in Neath has warned its staff that up to 90 jobs could be lost, blaming the falling price of coal and threats from green energy sources such as wind farming.
In some cases, the arrival of a new opencast operation can mean the loss of existing jobs. If a mine is in proximity to existing commercial facilities and the dust produced poses a risk (or is perceived to pose a risk) to their operations, firms can take the decision to relocate or curtail their plans for expansion. Sectors like bioscience and precision engineering are more susceptible than most and this can mean the loss of not only large numbers of local jobs, but exactly the type of jobs that the Welsh Government is striving to attract.
A recent report from the Commons Welsh Affairs Committee concluded that “Wales is now one of the worst performing areas in the UK in terms of attracting inward investment”. If this statement highlights the difficulties faced by Wales as a whole in attracting inward investment, then evidence suggests that the arrival of new and ugly open-cast sites are only likely to exacerbate the problem.
Many of the proposed opencast sites in Wales lie in picturesque surroundings, where the landscape has been recovered after coal tipping took place in the heyday of mining. The reality is that, whatever degree of care is taken by the mining companies, open-cast operations cause large scale and long term visible damage to the environment.
However, planning authorities can force open-cast developers to return the landscape to the state in which they found it, but there is a legacy of open cast which is less obvious to the eye and even more problematic. This is what is referred to as the erosion of the social and economic well-being of the population – the combined impact on physical and mental health, environment, employment, incomes and the potential for future investment. In particular, this can have such an impact on children that it can easily lead to a “lost generation”, as has happened in other parts of the country.
The conclusion must be that any proposed open-cast development should be treated sceptically and subjected to a full and independent cost-benefit analysis, where all the costs to the wider community (over the duration of the project and beyond) can be assessed and weighed up against the actual benefits. Rationality should be applied and our politicians must not be swayed by romantic memories of the past or the promise of short term job creation.
Professor Malcolm J Prowle is a professor at Nottingham Business School and visiting professor at the Open University Business School.He was born in and still resides in the South Wales Valleys