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Opencast coal mining in Merthyr Tydfil

In our experience here in Merthyr Tydfil we have found that environmental injustice, social injustice, and social deprivation go hand-in-hand.

The schemes that have been imposed on the people of Merthyr – unbidden and unwanted – have been environmental disasters as well as causing social problems for the local populace.

We’ve suffered, and are still suffering, prolonged opencast coal mining, a massive landfill site, and now the proposition of an enormous waste incinerator (masquerading as a ‘green’ Energy from Waste (EfW) solution).

Merthyr is very much a deprived area, and it does appear to be treated with contempt by central government, as can be seen by the latest statement by Ian Duncan-Smith, and even within our regional government. It’s at the top, or close to the top, of most of the wrong league tables; teenage pregnancies, poor health (especially Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) – an ‘umbrella’ term for people with chronic bronchitis, emphysema, or both), unemployment benefit claims, standardised mortality rate (SMR) figures, etc.

We have found that there is an attitude problem here in Merthyr in that the residents have become accepting of the abuse that has been meted out to them for so many years. They have been oppressed for so long now that they have effectively ‘given up’. The most common statement we hear whilst campaigning is: “I think it’s absolutely disgusting…but there we are – that’s Merthyr Council for you – there’s nothing you can do about it, so we may as well just get on with it”. This is very saddening to hear from a town that has a proud history of resistance and rebellion.

The total population of Merthyr Tydfil is now projected to decrease by 1,500 (or 2.6 per cent) by mid 2031; and this is the only local authority projected to see a declining population over this period!

Most of the industry in the town has closed down over the last 30-40 years, and with little inward investment to replace it, then it’s not surprising that the town has atrophied.

The Office for National Statistics figures for 2008 showed that, in Wales, the highest standardised mortality rate (SMR) was observed in Merthyr Tydfil (23 per cent above the national level).

With 25% of the populace claiming benefits, any scheme can easily be sold to them on the promise of jobs. The social and/or environmental impact of the project/scheme may be huge, but as long as they concentrate on the jobs angle, they will be snatched up by the man-in-the-street. This is quite understandable, and this is why this ploy is employed extensively by politicians, government departments, and companies attempting to dump their projects in our town.

There is a lot of coal left in reserves throughout South Wales and much of it in the densely populated ‘valleys’. In the past this was deep mined, and although this was a dirty and dangerous occupation with all its attendant long term health issues, it was the mine workers themselves who suffered. On the whole, the communities only suffered the social problems, not the health issues. Deep mining has now finished in Wales – it is no longer economically viable and has been replaced by strip or opencast mining. This is an awful, filthy, noisy and visually intrusive method of mining, but it’s cheap and quick to become productive.  The process involves digging away all the earth (overburden) covering the coal seams and then shoveling it out with huge mechanical diggers.

So, now the situation has been reversed with the mine workers being protected from the dust and dirt by the sealed, air conditioned cabins of their vehicles, and the surrounding community are subjected to the noise, dirt, and dust pollution – very much unprotected by any effective legislation here in Wales.

In these circumstances, I can’t see any respite for valleys communities that are suffering at the hands of unscrupulous governments and companies. As long as we have an energy policy centered around fossil fuel, and a dire need for jobs of any description, then these communities, and the environment, will suffer. So in this sense, it is an inevitability (although this really sticks in our craw as we will fiercely fight such injustices).

There is a term doing the rounds at the moment, and it is ‘killing fields’. I have been told that this term is being used to describe places, such as Merthyr Tydfil, where the SMR and other health issues are so bad that any increases caused by schemes such as opencast coal mining or waste incineration are hidden or masked. I can’t vouch for the validity of whether this term has come from government sources, or whether it is secret government policy to utilise this method, but you can well understand why so many people believe this to be true.

As an illustration of a strategy that could fit the above profile; we now have a massive waste incinerator proposed for Merthyr that is vastly over-specified for handling local waste. It will need 750,000 tonnes of combustible waste per annum to keep it operating; which would mean that it will quickly become an all Wales solution, and maybe beyond. The waste heat is not being utilized so it will be very inefficient at producing electricity. The recycling figures across Wales will be impacted as this thing will have to be fed this tonnage for the 25-30 years it will remain operational. If any authority comes up short on its contracted tonnage there will be fined a substantial sum.  The bottom ash and the ‘fly ash’ from the flu scrubbers/filters are toxic and they have to be dumped in controlled sites – and there’s the massive hole of the opencast coal mine next to the proposed site in Merthyr…! So Merthyr may well become a toxic waste dump as well.

Toxic ash, substantial CO2 emissions, reduced recycling rates, toxic smokestack emissions. And  on top of all that the site will be on top of a mountain, on grazing land, surrounded by the communities of Merthyr Tydfil, Fochriw, Pontlottyn, and Rhymney  – all areas suffering social deprivation and major health issues.

We are bearing the brunt of these schemes up here in the valleys; and I personally believe that the policymakers know full well what they are doing. In my opinion, they understand the concept of environmental injustice; it’s just that they choose to ignore it.

Chris Austin, Residents Against Ffos-y-fran (RAFF)

See also ‘Nimbyism

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