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…

Tom Langton

I’m just back from a very interesting/successful two days in Suffolk with Tom Langton – the first spent around the site of the proposed Sizewell C reactor, the second interviewing Tom himself: in the morning we talked about the badger cull (Tom, an ecologist specialising in epidemiology, has some very forthright things to say about the badger cull, which he says is basically built around an error in interpreting data); in the afternoon we talked about amphibians and ponds (Tom was a founder of Froglife, and is an expert on Great Crested Newts).

In between I met up with the charismatic John Burton at the offices of the World Land Trust (interviews have been promised with John and his team and will be finalised asap!), and wandered around Tom’s land – twenty-five incredibly beautiful organic acres of rural Suffolk, where he and his partner Cath have dug out nineteen ponds, planted hundreds of trees, and allowed the return of flower-rich grassland.

It’s genuinely astonishing driving through miles of intensively managed farmland to turn down a long farm track and find this oasis. The land is still in the process of returning to the state Tom wants, but Turtle Doves breed here, butterflies abound, and those ponds are heaving with Great Crested Newts and other amphibians. Underneath corrugated sheets lurk Slow Worms and bees nest under the eaves of the house along with bats and a pair of Jackdaws.

It’s the kind of place you’d never want to leave, the result of many, many years of hard work – and from this island of biodiversity (surrounded by chemical-spraying farmers and a goddam pheasant shoot) Tom works on a pile of Judicial reviews, sends streams of letters advising campaigners and activists, and – on behalf of wildlife everywhere – fights back!

It’ll take a while to edit up the conversations, but they will be well worth hearing when I do!

They want to build a nuclear reactor where…?

In the midst of the incredibly valuable Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB and right next to the RSPB’s flagship reserve at Minsmere and the Sandlings, that’s where…

Yes, admittedly there are the existing Sizewell A and B reactors already in situ (the construction of which involved the destruction of very rare shingle habitat with its specialised flora including Sea Kale, Yellow-horned Poppy, Sea Holly, and Sea Pea – the beach in the photo above is a shadow of its former self), but EDF Energy would now like to build Sizewell C – a massive ‘latest generation’ reactor which would take at least twelve years to build, ‘need’ a major road with a 7 metre embankment, a campus for 2400 construction workers, a 570 space car park, the removal of a woodland (with important bat colonies), bolstered sea defences (with unknown effects on shingle deposition), cut the end off an SSSI, and potentially risk the internationally important biodiversity of Minsmere (with its array of legally protected fauna and flora).

This tiny corner of Suffolk should have the highest legal protection available. It’s a mosaic of habitats that are increasingly rare, habitats wildlife needs. But here comes a company, supported by our politicians, who don’t see things that way at all. There’s a prevailing attitude in this country that seems to say that conservation and wildlife and beautiful places can be constrained within boundaries, can be made isolated, turned into islands without ill effect and that we (the human race) can do pretty much whatever we want outside those tiny specks of ‘protected’ land. We can do better than treat our environment and the precious flora and fauna it contains – and ourselves too – like this…

We need energy, I hear you say. Yes, we do – but do we genuinely need Terrawatts more energy and if we do, of what type? We may like the convenience of electricity on tap, but it’s killing the planet. How about we properly invest in energy-saving technology and learn to switch the lights off when we leave the room instead. And don’t we need renewable energy rather than nuclear anyway (which is only low-carbon and ‘green’ if you leave out the massive infrastructure requirements, the mining for rare metals needed in the reactor, and the cancer-causing waste that lasts for millenia)?

Yes, but look at the promotional image above and realise how beautiful the plant will be, sitting there all neat and tidy on the edge of the sea with no traffic or cars or trucks or people or litter or waste or lights or noise or anything detrimental whatsoever…Seriously? Seriously, are you being fricking serious?

All questions I got to ask (well, maybe not the last one) after being invited over to Suffolk by ecologist Tom Langton, to talk with him, Rachel Fulcher (Suffolk Coastal Friends of the Earth (FoE), former local councillor and campaigner Joan Girling, and Adam Rowland, senior site manager at Minsmere.

I’ve recorded about an hour of conversation which I’m suspecting will best be presented as a two-parter – one with Tom, Rachel, and Joan, the other with Adam (we spoke sat on Whin Hill literally just minutes after a female Marsh Harrier drifted RIGHT overhead – talk about signals from above, eh).

It’s going to be worth hearing because chances are a) you won’t know much about this bloody awful proposed development, and b) you need to.

As a final thought, I’m genuinely privileged to get to do the work I do, talking with people who care, people who are taking on huge odds, people just like you and me who have decided to fight back. I always say that these podcasts aren’t about me, I’m a platform, a conduit if you like. And that’s the truth. These amazing people are worth hearing, so please give them a listen.