Opencast coal extraction to 2000

Ian K Brash

Opencast coal extraction in Scotland in the year 2000 accounted for around half of the UK total. Around 16 million tonnes had been consented.

Often presented by the industry as short-term and reversible, opencast was also recognised by politicians as one of the most environmentally damaging developments of the 20th century. The adverse impacts of traditional mining were still noticeable in the western sector of the county, most obviously coal bings and subsidence. Yet East Lothian still took its share of opencast. Blindwells was approved for a ten-year operation in 1977; in 1987 an extension for a further ten years was approved. A second extension was approved, followed by a third for four years ending in July 2001. This short-term development lasted 23 years!

The Blindwells experience encouraged other developers to apply for consent for smaller mines. James Fenton applied for a 500,000 tonne mine at Tynemount, Ormiston in 1995. This was followed by an application at South Elphinstone Farm also in 1995 for 750,000 tonnes by William Grant. East Lothian Council refused both these applications, and its decision on Tynemount was upheld by the Secretary of State for Scotland at a Public Inquiry.

In the 1990s, opencast mining became an election issue with the Labour Party publishing in their manifesto a ‘Ten-Point Plan’ to control the environmental damage and disbenefit caused to communities by opencast mining. Once elected, the Labour Party sought to implement these proposals and a consultation document was issued in August 1997 reviewing the planning policy in Scotland. This resulted in new guidelines ‘NPPG 16’ Opencast Coal and Related Minerals, being adopted in March 1999.

The tightening up of guidelines did not, however, protect East Lothian from further proposals. In spring 1997 a Perth-based company, I & H Brown, submitted an application to extract 3.25 million tonnes of coal over ten years at Harry’s Burn. The proposals would have engulfed Elphinstone, and the site occupied a huge area between Tranent and Carberry. The threat to local communities, amenity, environment, and to local biotechnology industries (particularly PPL Therapeutics and Inveresk Research International, whose facilities were in close proximity to the mine) culminated again with a unanimous rejection by East Lothian Council. This rejection resulted in a modification to the proposals reducing the site by half (to 1.6 million tonnes over a five and a half year period). This application for a smaller mine was again unanimously refused; a Public Inquiry was to examine the appeal in winter of 2001, the outcome of which was eagerly awaited.

Continued rejection did not deter the opencast industry. Indeed the Lothian’s Structure Plan, which set out major strategies for the first part of the new millennium, was modified by the Scottish Executive. It identified ‘a composite area stretching from south west of Tranent around Ormiston and Fountainhall continuing to the north east around Pencaitland and Macmerry’ as an area of search within which opencast coal developments might be acceptable.