On the morning of 3rd May 2016 there was a successful occupation at the Ffos-y-Fran opencast mine in South Wales by Reclaim the Power. This blog was written in the build up to that action.
We’re heading for our tent in the incessant drizzle, weaving between clusters of newly sprouted tents and trying hard to avoid tripping on guy ropes or pegs in the tightly packed encampment. The drums, guitars and voices of the venerable but still vibrant ‘protest folk’ band Seize the Day, playing in the main marquee, spill out into the night. To our left the land runs flat until a steep hill forms the western horizon. Ahead of us is a National Grid pylon, a grey tower in the half-light, looming up just beyond where the cluster of tents gives out. It stands as a pale shadow against the light grey sky. The cloud that we’re camping in is being backlit by the lights of Merthyr Tydfil in the valley beyond. The high voltage cables crackle in the sodden air, a note that mixes with the sound of the band we’ve just left. The words of Bob Dylan come to mind:
‘The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face,
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place’
This is the Terfynu Glo Nawr/End Coal Now camp called by Reclaim the Power. Perhaps four hundred of us are gathered already, preparing for the action that will take place 36 hours from now to shut down the UK’s largest opencast coal mine. The protest is not only against the existing pit, but also against the plans of Miller Argent to open a second opencast nearby. This mining company has been naked in its bullying of the local authority as it attempts to turn sections of this high plateau into private profit. The camp offically began a day and a half ago, and since then activists have arrived from Wales, England, Scotland and across Europe. This piece of mass direct action, so carefully and precisely planned, is just one of at least 24 that will take place as part of the Break Free from Fossil Fuels international mobilisation between 3rd and 11th May.
In the drenched morning, the landscape is swathed in grey cloud despite the driving south-westerly that rocked our tent through the night. I determine to climb up one of the hills that loom over the camp. This is not a ‘natural’ feature but a spoil heap from the Ffos-y-Fran opencast mine, the guts of the Earth piled up into the sky, part of a long ridge that blocks the western horizon. Until less that a decade ago, on a clear day, I would have been able to see west from the camp for perhaps twenty miles. Now I can see two hundred yards. The shape of the mountain on which we are pitched has been irrevocably altered in the Anthropocene. I can feel my calves strain as I pick my way up the uncannily even slope of the hill, a surface of soft black and bronze crumbling rock veiled in pale grass. This thin gauze of vegetation is worn through in many places revealing the naked soil beneath.
Climbing perhaps a hundred feet from the base of the slope, I turn to look back at the camp. A huddle of multi-coloured tents, the big white marquee, a small wind turbine straining at its support cables and a few vehicles. Looking tiny on the expanse of the high plateau, this temporary village has appeared at a place called Twn y Waun (Tom of the Moor). Intriguingly – for it is unconscious – the camp echoes the stalls of the market fair that was once held here every 30th June, from at least the 12th century. The fair was the gathering point for a mass demonstration in 1831, part of the Reform Agitation that called for radical political change. (The agitators, coming from Hirwaun Common, carried with them a white flag dipped in the blood of a calf – possibly the first use of the Red Flag). The name of the place, the camp and the passionate madness of its inhabitants, makes me think of Poor Tom on heath in Shakespeare’s King Lear – the wise fool who cares for the crazed king.
There are Skylarks singing over the moor – audible despite the wind. To my left is the valley of the Taf, the houses of Dowlais in regimented terraces on the distant slope. In front of me, beyond the camp, is Gelli-Gaer Common stretching away to the dark gash of the Rhymni valley. In the middle ground is the Rhaslas pond, a place renowned for birds such as Short-eared Owls and Hen Harriers, now threatened by a new opencast mine. To my right the moor rises gradually to the nearest ‘natural’ hill, Myndd Fochriw, an outcrop at the head of the Cwn Darran and Cwm Bargod valleys.
From this plateau drain two major river systems, the Afon Taf and the Afon Rhymni, both of which flow through the heart of the Welsh capital, Cardiff (Caerdydd) before they meet the mouth of the Severn and enter the Severn Sea (Mor Hafren). And this is the location of the largest opencast coal mine in the UK! The place where Miller Argent is trying to disembowel a further 1,200 acres of moor along a valley of the stream of Nant Llesg that drains into the Afon Rhymni. It is madness. Not only from a climate change perspective, but also because of the toxic impact such extraction has on these Welsh rivers. (The rocky bed of the Rhymni is already orange from the metallic load that its waters carry – a consequence of over a century of mining in the valley).
To add insult to injury, the former opencast mine workings are being backfilled with landfill. To my left, before the hill falls away to the houses of Dowlais, there is a pit largely lined with black plastic sheeting around which flock Herring Gulls, Black-Headed Gulls and Carrion Crows all scavenging on this feast of domestic rubbish. Shreds of multi-coloured plastic cling to the perimeter fences blown by the west wind. The people of Dowlais fought a campaign for seven years against the flies, dust and smell of one of the largest landfill sites in Europe, licensed to take hazardous waste, that began soon after Biffa Group Ltd brought it in 1993. Two hundred residents were finally compensatated after nearly a decade of struggle. I find it hard not to feel that this land, and the people who live here, have been subject to abuse again and again.
I press on, up to the top of the mountain of mine spoil. I had expected a sharp ridge and to be able to see deep into the Ffos-y-Fran opencast pit beyond it. Instead I am confronted by a vast moonscape stretching flat, barren and black in all directions. The edges of this human and machine-made land are hidden in grey cloud. I head across it. The wind up here is ferocious, howling in from the Atlantic, across the Celtic Sea and up the valleys of the Brecon Beacons. It is armed with freezing rain that stings the face and I am quickly drenched. I turn about and retreat to the camp, only able to find my bearings by the tops of the line of National Grid pylons that are just visible in the cloud.
Part of the reason for the action by Reclaim the Power is to draw attention to the existing mine and to lend support to the local campaign that is battling to stop Miller Argent from opening up a new mine at Nant Llseg. Only by walking the land do I get a sense of the brutal insanity of this planned destruction. The Ffos-y-Fran mine is gouged out of the western side of the plateau, overlooking the Taf and Merthyr Tydfil. Its impact has long been a blight on those who have their homes here. Alyson Austin of the United Valley’s Action Group (UVAG), has described publically how living next to the mine is far worse than she’d expected – she does not open her windows no matter how hot it is because of the dust and she cannot dry her washing outside.
The proposed opencast, at Nant Llseg, would excavate a massive new pit on the eastern side of the plateau. It would dominate the town of Rhymney and the prevailing south-westerly wind would spread dust and grime from the workings across hundreds more homes. In 2010 Miller Argent announced its intention to extract 6 million tons of coal from over a thousand acres of land at Nant Llseg. Soon after, a local group began campaigning against the plan and fought against officers in Caerphilly County Borough Council who told them it was a done deal. There were public rallies and a petition of 7,000 signatures opposing the mine. Twenty-two local residents spoke against the Nant Llseg, standing alongside a number of local businesses threatened by the opencast. One of the latter is a cosmetics company which explained: “Cosmetics and pharmaceutical companies cannot operate anywhere near a mine for risk of product contamination – which immediately puts over 300 jobs in Rhymney at serious risk.” Finally, on 24th June 2015, the councillors on the Planning Committee in Caerphilly unanimously refused planning permission for the Nant Llseg opencast.
Miller Argent immediately announced that it would appeal the decision at the Welsh Assembly and threatened to ‘recover’ substantial sums – perhaps £100,000 – for legal costs from the council. The company CEO wrote in a letter to the councillors:
“Your officers have highlighted the potential for a substantial award of costs against the council. Please ask yourself what services could be provided by the council with that money?”
Caerphilly County is one of the most deprived boroughs in the UK, which in 2015 had to make £12 million worth of cuts.
Earlier last year the Welsh Assembly had voted unanimously for a moratorium on opencast mining in Wales – the first parliament in the world to do so. However, the vote is non-binding and so the Welsh Government could approve Miller Argent’s appeal to overturn the decision over Nant Llseg mine. However supported by Friends of the Earth at a national level, the councillors have stood firm and, with a large rally outside the council offices, the decision was upheld on 5th August 2015. Four months later, Miller Argent submitted an appeal against the council’s decision to the Planning Inspectorate. So a public inquiry is likely to take place and the struggle continues.
It is in this tense context that the Terfynu Glo Nawr/End Coal Now camp takes place. It is vital that the widest attention is brought to the long struggle by United Valley’s Action Group’s (UVAG) campaign against the opencasts of Taf and Rhymni. For the battle over the 1,000 acres of Gelli-Gaer Common is part of the global movement to ‘keep it in the ground’.
As Eddy Blanche, vice-chair of UVAG, wrote on the night Caerphilly councillors voted to reject the Nant Llseg plan:
“We understand that the fight is not over and that Miller Argent will appeal against this decision but we have won this battle. We will keep on fighting and if you face the same blight please remember not to give up. You can win. You can make a difference. The only battles you will ever be sure to lose are the ones you don’t fight in the first place.’
Thanks to Mark B and Tanya Hawkes – and for inspiration from Anne Harris, the Coal Action Network and their brilliant publication – ‘Ditch Coal – The Global Mining Impacts of the UK’s Addiction to Coal’.