The days when coal was king in the North East may well be over but the black stuff still plays an important part in the region's economy with the growth in surface mining. Karen Dent reports.
THE days of deep coal mining are virtually over. Ellington, the last deep pit in the region, was closed seven years ago, but the region’s rich reserves are continuting to yield wealth through opencasting.
Indeed the seam once dug under Ellington near Ashington in Northumberland has just celebrated the extraction of a million tonnes with another million expected to come out of Potland Burn by 2015.
Twelve seams of coal, with a combined thickness of over five metres, are being recovered as part of a six-year project at the UK Coal operated site, with 65 workers producing around 10,000 tonnes a week. It took a £6m investment to get the site up and running on the back of the closure of Ellington after water flooded its workings.
Site manager Peter Millar said: “This is a classic example of surface-mined coal complementing output from collieries that abandoned these reserves many years ago. This site has been a lifeline for many working here who faced being unemployed without it.”
And last week, County Durham-based Hargreaves Services announced it had received planning permission for a new opencast site near Morpeth and has plans to roll this out on a wider scale across the region in the next few years.
The Banks Group, also based in Durham, has three North East opencast mines currently in production plus one in Scotland, while Yorkshire-based UK Coal is operating two in Northumberland one in County Durham. It is has also submitted plans for a site at Hoodsclose, near Whittonstall in Northumberland.
Hargreaves, which already runs the huge Tower Colliery project in South Wales in addition to cokeworks and collieries in Yorkshire, last week received the green light for a surface mine at Well Hill, near Morpeth. It will create around 20 jobs extracting around 130,000 tonnes of coal over a two-year period with plans to bring in up to 200 workers as its mining operations due to expand in the North East.
Hargreaves chief executive Gordon Banham said: “We obviously have a big surface mine in Wales, which has seven million tonnes. The plan is to develop that expertise in the North East. The team that got the planning for Tower is a North East team.
“The plan is that Well Hill will be the first of a number in the North East. Our plan is to extract half a tonne a year from the North East coalfield.
“It’s jobs in the North East, it’s North East expertise, it’s money that’s spent in the North East. It’s a lot better than having a company from outside the region.
“We are a big employer now, with more than 3,000 staff across the group. This is the first one and it will create 20 jobs. Five or six have already been taken on at our headquarters at Esh Winning.
“We’d hope to have on the go two or three sites at any one time, employing 100 to 200 people. There’s a lot of coal in the North East that has potential. There are two more sites [in County Durham] we hope to put into planning by the end of our financial year.”
The Banks Group, which has three ongoing mines in south east Northumberland, recently won the Surface Miner of the Year accolade in recognition of its work. It is responsible for the giant Northumberlandia earth sculpture at Shotton opencast mine near Cramlington, and has been involved in the industry since the 1970s.
Banks Group communications manager Katie Perkin said: “At the moment, we have one near Seaton Burn, one at Brenkley Lane and one at Shotton near Cramlington.
“Whenever you design a surface mine, you know how much coal is in there. We have very detailed plans, so you always know how long it will be operating for.”
The group, which employs around 360 of its 380 staff in its mining business – it also has property and renewables divisions – obtains a “large proportion” of its £54.6m turnover from its surface mining interests. Perkin said this had allowed the groups to invest in other parts of the group.
Although the application for opencast sites tend to worry people living nearby, modern mining companies are quick to point out their community and environmental credentials – and the importance they attach to winning local people’s support for their projects.
Perkin said: “Surface mining has gone through some fantastic improvements in the past few years. It’s the technology we’ve got now that enables us to operate sites effectively closer to communities.
“We like to invite communities into our sites so they can appreciate what they are like now.
“The great opportunity with surface mining is that we’ve got the ability to put the land back better than it was before. At Shotton, some of the land will go back to farmland but we will be able to sort out a drainage problem that the farmers had before.
“We recently just finished at the Delhi site next to Shotton and the majority of the land is being restored. In County Durham, we have created lakes, nature reserves – a whole host of different things.
“It’s about engaging with the community at each individual site. It’s about working with the local community and local authorities for social and environmental benefits. There has got to be benefits there for the whole community.”