OPENCAST battle lines are being drawn at a prime rural site as the fight against a 2m-tonne dig gathers force.
Campaigners opposing UK Coal’s plans to excavate 2.05m tonnes of high-grade coal from a 208-hectare site at Whittonstall, on the Northumberland-Durham border, are preparing for a major public meeting with council planners on Thursday. It is feared the seven-and-a-half-year dig will destroy life in the isolated community, with up to 63 wagons a day leaving the site and noise and dust pollution inevitable.
UK Coal director of surface mining Simon Taylor has pledged that everything possible will be done to mitigate the effect if the application gets the go-ahead from Northumberland County Council next month. But WAG – the Whittonstall Action Group – says the impact on rural life and tourism would be “particularly devastating”.
Over 350 local individuals and businesses have lodged objections to the plans. A site meeting was held on January 9 and in a statement issued to The Journal WAG claimed it had been confirmed by UK Coal to county councillors that the scheme would run for eight-and-a-half years. The dig would in the latter stages come to within 160 metres of Whittonstall First School, to which UK Coal has offered £850,000 to develop facilities.
While objectors dismiss the payment as “a sweetener”, Mr Taylor told The Journal: “It is not. If it was a unilateral offer, I would say it was a sweetener. But it is about making the school better, with better movement within the school.
“If we just threw that in without consultation, it would be a sweetener. But we have had good consultations with the school and the governors and the parish council.”
Thursday’s public meeting at St John’s Church Hall in Snods Edge, Shotley Bridge, begins at 6pm.
WAG said: “This meeting will supplement the letters of objection already written to Northumberland County Council by more than 350 local individuals and businesses.”
The statement said main concerns include visual impact on green belt land; impact upon the village school; the cumulative impact on beautiful countryside already affected by quarries and wind farms; and the impact on rural life and tourist businesses.
The statement added: “There is also a major question in respect of the value and need for coal especially as the recent Energy Bill completely minimises the need for coal as an energy source into the future.”
UK Coal has promised 76 full-time jobs, with another 21 seasonally, and further £400,000 community fund for local projects. It says the site will be fully restored with new hedgerow, native woodland, a wildlife corridor, 11 new ponds plus woodland, wetland and conservation areas managed for 10 years.
During the work, screening mounds would reduce noise, dust and visual impact while dust levels would be monitored and a pre-constructed site access road would reduce HGVs through Whittonstall and Ebchester.
Mr Taylor said: “We respect everybody’s right to object, though when they start off, people create a picture in their minds of something that is far, far worse than it will actually be.
“We have done our homework, there have been thousands of hours put in, and we have worked very hard at the technical aspects. Over the last 10 years we have won 15 of 16 opencast applications submitted.”