THE operators of Ffos y Fran coal mine in Merthyr Tydfil want to keep mining there for nine more months to keep the steel industry supplied and help with the security of energy supply.
Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd is applying to vary a condition of its planning permission for the site so it can keep extracting minerals until June 6, 2023 and to extend the deadline to complete the restoration of the site until September 6, 2025.
Planning permission for the operational surface coal mine at Ffos-y-Fran was originally granted by what was then the National Assembly for Wales in April 2005.
This was varied under a section 73 planning application with two conditions which said all coal extraction from the development should stop no later than September 6, 2022 and final restoration of the land shall be completed no later than December 6, 2024.
The section 73 permission allowed “the limited dispatch by road of up to 5% of the annual output of coal from the Ffos-y-Fran land reclamation scheme or a
maximum of 50,000 tonnes of coal per annum (whichever is the lesser) via Cwmbargoed Disposal Point.”
Cwmbargoed Disposal Point – which handles the coal produced from the site – operates under its own planning permissions and is partly in Merthyr Tydfil but mostly in the Caerphilly County Borough.
The section 73 application was originally refused by the council but the proposals were allowed on appeal with a list of updated conditions for the continued operation of the mine which superseded the original planning permission for the site.
The reasons given for needing to extend the time of operations include allowing for full extraction of the consented area which has been impacted by the working practices required during the Covid 19 pandemic and allowing for continued supply of coal to the steel industry in Port Talbot [TATA Steel] to address security of energy supply arising from global market disruption and reduce the need to import coal from overseas.
The third reason is to allow for a new planning application related to a three year extension to coal operations at the site to help with the security of energy supply issues affecting the steel industry in south Wales and put a revised final site restoration plan in place.
The statement said that since the closure of Tower Colliery, Ffos-y-Fran represents the only current source of Welsh dry steam coal within the country.
It said that dry steam coal has unique characteristics which are ideal for use in steel manufacturing and that TATA Steel (a British company) relies heavily on this coal.
“Therefore, without the continued provision of the coal from the Ffos-y-Fran site, users of Dry Steam Coal (such as TATA Steel) would need to import suitable coal products from Russia, Venezuela or Australia.
“This is an unsustainable practice and results in an increase of Carbon footprint of such operations given the transit miles required (in
comparison to extracting and utilising a locally sourced coal).
“Consideration should also be given to the security of supply given the geo-political situation and the sustainability of supply from such regions.
“Whilst there is a longer term aspiration for Carbon neutrality within the UK, industries such as steel manufacturing are in a period of transition and require a security of supply in the short term.
“As such, the ability to continue extracting dry steam coal from Ffos-y-Fran should be considered of national significance / importance.”
It later added that the Welsh dry steam coal sourced from Ffos-y-Fran is also utilised by a variety of smaller markets, including steam locomotives, traction engines, steam-powered boats and steam raising boilers.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the number of workers on site was reduced for the health and safety of staff with social distancing and cleaning protocols and as a result less coal was mined in 2020, 2021 and part of 2022.
The exact numbers are not known but the planning statement said that with approximately three quarters of the usual number of miners on site operating a single shift, this reduced the extraction rate at the mine by in excess of 120,000 tonnes a year whilst restrictions were in place.
It added that it is estimated that there is approximately 240,000 tonnes of coal left within the remainder of the last cut within the confines of the previously consented extraction area.
The planning statement said that “Whilst this remaining quantum falls below the historic extraction rates undertaken at the site, which equate to
approximately 40,000 – 50,000 tonnes per month, the proposed 9 month extension to the life of the mine would allow for a contingency associated with any further coronavirus lock-down, unexpected drops in extraction rate
and for a progressively slowed extraction rate as restoration activities become more prominent.
“This should give the council confidence that no further extension of time to the existing consent would be required or requested in future.”
The statement also said that any reduction in tonnages extracted from the site
would impact upon payments (per tonne) made to the community fund managed by Merthyr Tydfil Council, the money paid into the restoration fund and money paid to the Coal Authority.
It added: “Overall, the unforeseen circumstances that led to the above should be considered to form grounds for an exceptional case.”
The planning statement said the Ffos y Fran Land Reclamation Scheme, which covers around 400 hectares (Four square kilometres) is the last part of the East Merthyr Reclamation scheme, which is made up of three phases of extraction and reclamation at the site.
This final phase, which started in 2007, will restore derelict land after extracting an estimated 10 million tonnes of coal.
This includes the removal of known shafts previously associated with iron ore and coal workings, removal and remediation of areas of landfill, and
the restoration of the site to common land and grazing.
The planning statement also said that because the proposals will not alter the working practices or physical extent of the minerals extraction
proposed, the section 72 application would not raise likely significant effects beyond those assessed within the original Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).
The agents are of the opinion that the nature of this application to simply amend the duration of the extant consent would not normally warrant the undertaking of an EIA but following discussions with officers from Merthyr Tydfil Council, it has been agreed that there would be an Environmental Statement Addendum.