Why I shut down Britain’s biggest opencast coal mine

Reclaim The Power and Earth First! activist Andrea Brock explains why, on the first day since the industrial revolution in which none of Britain’s energy was generated from coal, she was part of shutting down Ffos-y-fran, the UK’s biggest opencast coal mine.

I decided that we have to take action because governments are not responding to the impact of climate change and air pollution. We need to close all coal power stations quickly and the opencast coal mines which supply them, because of their contribution to runaway climate change which disproportionately affects people in the Global South.

Our action was at Ffos-y-fran in South Wales. Dust from the mine has been blowing over the town of Merthyr Tydfil. Last month a United Nations delegation visited the communities living near the coal mine. Baskut Tuncak a UN representative who met local residents has called for their to be an investigation into incidences of cancer and childhood asthma in the area surrounding Ffos-y-fran.

I was one of three protesters from Earth First! who entered the mine and locked on to machinery stopping work. Our action was partly organised by Reclaim the Power who organised the mass trespass at the same mine last year, when 300 people entered the mine and shut down it’s operation for the day. Today a group of 5 of us, including 2 people locked to a cattle grid blocking the only access to the rail terminal used to ship coal out, achieved the same result of stopping work for the day.

Traditionally miners took canaries into underground coal mines. The birds are more sensitive to air pollution than we are. If they died the miners knew that they had to get out of the mine quickly, as the air was toxic. One of our group dressed as a canary to highlight the dangerous dust created by Ffos-y-fran, the toxic nitrogen oxides released when this coal is burnt and climate change impacts.

Most of the coal from Ffos-y-fran is burnt in Aberthaw power station. This coal is difficult to ignite and the process by which it is burnt produces more nitrogen oxides than when other coal is burnt. Respiratory diseases as a result of coal burning at Aberthaw power station has been responsible for the deaths of 400 people a year, due to the nitrogen oxides, according to a 2016 report by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.

Last autumn the European Court of Justice ruled that the UK government has been allowing RWE npower to breach EU legislation restricting nitrogen oxides. No action has been taken to remedy the situation. RWE is Europe’s largest CO2 emitter with huge coal operations in Germany producing electricity from highly inefficient brown coal. Aberthaw has been reported to say that they will import coal from Russia and Australia, which produces less pollution when it is burnt. This won’t reduce the climate impacts of running the power station.

Coal dust is causing significant concern to the resident’s living near Ffos-y-fran and the nine or so other UK opencast coal mines. In 2015 38% of coal burnt in the UK came from Russia and 29% came from Colombia. No coal was imported from Australia for any of the UK’s eight coal power stations. In Russia and Colombia the situations surrounding the opencast coal mines amount to cultural genocide, with indigenous and settled communities being forced from their land.

While coal extraction is a local tragedy it does not matter where CO2 is emitted, the impacts are always felt first and hardest in the Global South. Not acting to drastically cut emissions will further entrench global inequalities as the costs associated with the burning fossil fuels fall on those least able to bear them. When 7 out of 10 of the countries most at risk from climate change are in sub-Saharan Africa there is no denying that the impacts are being felt by those least responsible for them. Continuing to burn coal is to knowingly disregard the value of black and brown lives.

The government is currently deciding whether it will phase-out coal in 2025. Hearing about the impacts that mining at Ffos-y-fran is having on the people living there, knowing about the situation in Russia and Colombia, and having a world careering toward irreversible show that this is too late for the people at the front line of coal extraction.

It is time that decisive action is taken to close Aberthaw power station which in turn will allow for Ffos-y-fran to close and to be restored.

We need to show strong public support for a prompt coal phase-out. Join our fight against new and existing coal mines. You can get involved in the fight against coal in Wales or support the community which is opposing a new opencast coal mine on the Northumberland coastline. The Highthorn project at Druridge Bay attracted 10,000 signatures objecting to the application and will be decided by the planning inspectorate after a hearing in June.

The shift we’ve seen today away from coal-fired power shows that it is possible to move away from destructive fossil fuel generation. But coal can’t be substituted by gas, which is huge contributor to climate change as it also releases potent methane as well as Co2.

Neither gas nor coal can achieve the type of greenhouse-gas reductions demanded by international bodies such as the IPCC.

The shift away from coal would not be possible without decades of community resistance and action from the movement for climate justice. We must take action to keep all fossil fuels in the ground, and restore theses natural habitats as much as possible. We need to get behind a shift towards renewable energy as well as reduce our demand.

Andrea Brock