THE floodgates could be opened to opencast mining in rural areas if a development in a remote part of Northumberland gets the green light, villagers say.
People living at Halton Lea Gate, near the Cumbrian border, yesterday launched their third battle against opencast developer Paul Murphy in two years with the start of a public inquiry into his proposals.
Mr Murphy, director of HM Project Developments, which is based in Houghton-le-Spring, has taken his plea to dig 140,000 tonnes of coal to an appeal after a double rejection by Northumberland County Council.
But on the opening day of a public inquiry hearing expected to run into three weeks, Nick Kennon, chairman of the North Pennines Protection Group, told Government Inspector Clive Sproule: “We are worried about the precedent that could be set. To grant the appeal would open the floodgates for similar applications.
“If this development is approved, we are very concerned that it could open the way for similar operations in the area.”
Mr Murphy has pledged to create 26 local jobs and 10 haulage jobs for the three-and-a-half years of the dig, then set up an equestrian centre in the village afterwards.
Andrew Fraser-Urquhart, for HM Project Developments, said: “The scheme would bring with it a range of benefits that would outweigh the environmental affects. And the employment would be locally-based, stimulating the local economy. These are valuable benefits to which weight should be given. They will exist for the longer term.”
Mr Fraser-Urquhart said the land, subject to shallow mine workings, would be stabilised by working out the old seams, while new hedgerow species would be created and footpaths restored, bringing recreational opportunities.
But Mr Kennon responded: “We have been told that the purpose of the development is long-term remediation. We do not accept that.
“This community has faced the spectre of opencast coal mining since 1999 and is fed up with words like remediation.
“We say ‘No thanks’. The ecology is sound in this area – are we really expected to agree to its dismantling? There are no long-term benefits.”
Northumberland County Council rejected HM Project Developments’ original proposals in December 2009 because of the lack of an ecological report and the likely impact on the region, close to the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
A follow-up attempt was also thrown out in May 2011 and now Mr Murphy has returned with an appeal backed by minor amendments.
The area is said to be home to bird sanctuaries, endangered species, otters, grouse and newts. In addition, protesters say the dig site comes to within 17 metres of the nearest houses.
Simon Pickles, for the county council, said: “Opencasting is industrial use alien to the area that surrounds it. The county does not consider that it (140,000 tonnes of coal) would make a significant contribution – there is limited scope for economic gain.”
The hearing continues.
This community has faced the spectre of opencast coal mining since 1999. There are no benefits