Podcast uploaded: Pont Valley | Coal mining, newts, and climate change

Image copyright Coal Action Network

I’ve been working on a rather tricky edit of a conversation I had two weeks ago with campaigner Don Kent (a spokesperson for the Campiagn to Protect Pont Valley) and ecologist Tom Langton (who I visited in Suffolk recently and am increasingly working with).

We were talking about a huge opencast coal mine in the Pont Valley, Co Durham, and the reason the edit was ‘tricky’ is because part of what we were discussing is currently in front of the courts – and no-one wants to be accused of prejudicing or influencing an ongoing court case. So concerned were we all, that the edit went through a fact-check by a lawyer before uploading – and I’m grateful for his clear and important clarifications.

Anyway, on legal advice we kept certain details of the case relatively vague. It’s not difficult to find all the relevant details you could possibly need via whatever search engine you prefer to use (try ‘Pont+Valley+Opencast+Mine’), but I wrote a long (even for me!) introduction to this podcast explaining the current situation, which I’ve copied below.

In case that’s all a bit TL:DR why not go straight to the podcast itself, which is at Pont Valley – Coal mining, Newts, and Climate Change

But in case you are interested, here’s that intro:

Protest, climate change, fossil fuels vs renewables, development vs biodiversity loss, resources vs a fragile natural world, opencast coal mining, a County Wildlife Site, and the Great Crested Newt – all, remarkably, encapsulated in the story of the campaign to protect the Pont Valley.

How so? County Durham’s Pont Valley lies some twenty miles to the west of Sunderland, close to the edge of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It’s a region of epic landscapes, of valleys and hills, wild places and small villages – but this part of the northeast was once the heart of lead mining, coal mining, and steel production. Times change of course, and by the 1850s the best lead ore had been removed, the nearby Consett Steelworks closed for the last time in 1980, and the last colliery in the Durham coalfield closed in 1994.

But there is of course still coal in the ground, much of it lying close to the surface, and local developers want to get it out – not just in the Pont valley but at other sites in the northeast including the magnificent Druridge Bay.

There is a long history of mining applications here. The first attempt to mine Pont valley was rejected by the county council in 1974, a further one was thrown out in 1986 and then again in 2011. But after a series of appeals a planning inspector granted UK Coal permission to mine in June 2015. When UK Coal went bust, the licence was taken over and in January 2018 it was announced that mining would go ahead.

The mining company intends to remove 500,000 tonnes of coal from the Pont Valley but many in the local communities, activists from for example the Campaign to Protect Pont Valley and Coal Action Network, and even former miners – don’t want them to. The Pont Valley is an ecologically rich area, coal use is being phased out anyway and the climate crisis demands that we look at cleaner energy, and – at a more local level – the development includes a well-known county wildlife site, Brooms Pond, which has held a well-known population of the Great Crested Newt for many years.

And it’s those newts that have – perhaps unexpectedly – caused the mining company the most trouble. Great Crested Newts are a European Protected Species: destroying their breeding and resting places is a criminal offence under The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations.

Ecological surveys for the newts were undertaken before mining began – they suggested that the newts were no longer present at Brooms Pond, but in April 2018 a Great Crested Newt was found in a pitfall trap by campaigners. Despite that, Brooms Pond was still drained.

Activists attempting to stop the company, destroying the pond and the habitat of a protected species, were arrested and charged with aggravated trespass, but the case was thrown out of court last August – the judge ruling that they were trying to stop a wildlife crime taking place. Campaigners are now looking to sue the mining company – and that action is still making its way through the courts.

My name is Charlie Moores and in this conversation about the mine and its environmental impact I’m talking with Don Kent and Tom Langton.

Don, a veteran activist and spokesperson for the Campaign to Protect the Pont Valley, lives just a few miles from the opencast site. Having played an active role in protests about CFC’s, nuclear power and Lead in Petrol, he sees permission to mine Pont Valley as a major failure in the slow progress towards environmental protection that he has seen over his life.

Tom is a scientist and nature conservationist. A highly-experienced ecologist his work in recent decades has turned more and more to legal defence of wildlife. Associated more recently with badger and bat conservation, his main and life-long specialisation are reptiles and amphibians – and in Britain he – literally – wrote the book on conserving the Great Crested Newt. He has given half of his time for 40 years helping wildlife charities, working without charge for local groups such as those from friends of the earth and other unfunded wildlife protest groups and individuals. His involvement in the Pont Valley campaign began when lawyers asked him to look at the surveys that were done at Brooms Pond and to appear as an expert witness in Middlesbrough Magistrates Court.

Discussing such a delicately balanced situation while it is in the process of going through the courts means being very careful about what is said of course – hence, for example, the rather vague references to ‘mining company’ when a quick Google of the case makes it very clear just who is involved. So, in some respects, this is a more generic conversation about mining in the northeast and wildlife survey methods than such an extraordinary campaign perhaps deserves, but none of us want to do anything that might cause claims of prejudicing or influencing the case.

Nevertheless there is no doubt that what is happening in the Pont Valley is hugely important – not just at the local level but in the way it fits into larger, big picture conversations and actions that right now are taking place all over the planet…

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