Friday, 21 December 2012

Merry Christmas and a Happy quarry-free New Year

Just for fun because it's Xmas...


Aggregate Industries has kept us informed of its investigations at Straitgate Farm. Grading analyses (deriving silt, sand and gravel proportions) have now been performed on the raw material removed from the test pits. Results have been supplied and "continue to confirm the quality". Further physical and chemical tests have been arranged. Piezometers have been installed in the six boreholes, and data-loggers are expected to be fitted early in the new year to start recording groundwater levels. AI has commissioned AMEC to act as its hydrogeological consultants.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Two more quarries that didn't get restored back to farmland

Two more novel uses for old quarries - a 15MW solar energy 'farm' with 62500 panels, and a round-the-clock testing ground for articulated dump trucks. Not perhaps the restoration plans that local people had either hoped for or expected. Not farmland. Not nature trails. But Aggregate Industries is not a charity. If it quarried Straitgate, who could blame it for wanting to persuade DCC in the future that the county no longer needed the woodland clearing with picnic area, or footpaths with education boards, detailed on the imaginative and colourful plans used to win permission way back in 2014. Who could blame it for arguing that what Ottery really needed was, for example, an aggregate recycling centre on the old Straitgate Quarry site? Would the company listen to local people? Did it listen to "Objectors [who] had pleaded to AI to abandon its [78 metre] wind turbine proposals for Hulands Quarry"?

AI calls for more road spending

Just as a turkey might sponsor a campaign calling for a rethink on how we celebrate Christmas, Aggregate Industries is sponsoring a CBI report calling on government to support greater private investment in the road network. Lobbying like this should surprise no-one, but the tab for increased road investment, and the aggregate it requires, would have to be picked up by somebody, and if not directly by the state then in higher charges for road users. The CBI is proposing a similar model to that used in the water and rail industries, but is privatisation, profits and road tolling really the answer? We know where water charges and rail fares have gone.

AI's chief executive officer, Alain Bourguignon, writes in the report's foreword "By transferring the management and maintenance of essential road infrastructure to long-term investment vehicles, we could see far better planning, procurement and design of the assets, leading to far better outcomes for all stakeholders." And far better business for AI of course. It's a "no-brainer" according to AI's blog - just not for the communities next to any one of its asphalt, concrete or quarry operations.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

AI's flow meters will need to be securely fixed

This watercourse feeds into the top of Cadhay Bog. It is fed by water from Straitgate, carried by culvert under the intervening field. The photo on the left shows the water flowing out of the culvert towards the road. Over the past few years the water has undercut the road and eroded a four feet deep trench through the pebbled subsoil. Aggregate Industries' hydrogeology consultants will be putting flow meters into watercourses originating from Straitgate in due course - the meters will have to be firmly anchored. This watercourse is recorded on the Environment Agency's Historic Flood Map, and has exceeded its capacity twice this year in July and November. It was the Cadhay Bog watercourse that flooded 50 properties at Thorne Farm Way in 2008, prompting the EA to build a flood defence scheme, completed this year, but which makes no allowance for extra run-off caused by removing all the gravel and its water retaining properties at Straitgate Farm.

The EnviroCheck maps are copyright © 2012 Landmark Information Group drawing from sources which themselves are protected under Crown Copyright (Ordnance Survey, Environment Agency, British Geological Survey, and other public authorities) or under copyrights owned by private enterprises. You are kindly requested to use these maps solely for activities relating to the Straitgate Action Group, as other uses may not fall under the licence granted.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Webcast viewing figures tell the story

Thank you to Roger Giles, County Councillor for Ottery St Mary Rural, for providing us with DCC's webcast viewing figures for 2012. The special meeting of the Development Management Committee on 26 April, the purpose of which was to receive representations from local communities on sites being consulted upon by DCC for future sand and gravel supply in East and Mid Devon, was the third most watched webcast. The issue of minerals and particularly where they are extracted is demonstrably important to the people of Devon.

Could DCC ever call an end to "Mineral Madness"?

Whilst DCC's Local Aggregate Assessment (LAA) seems a more balanced document than many of the past, with a comprehensive overview of Devon's aggregates market, in the end actions and allocations of Preferred Sites will speak louder than words. Nevertheless there are signs, possibly, that DCC has listened to the representations made at the meeting on 26 April and in the public  consultation on the issue of need. In the LAA for example:

  • Devon has the capacity to support increased production of secondary and recycled aggregates
  • there is potential for increased substitution between the different types of aggregate, including the use of crushed rock fractions instead of sand and gravel
  • during the later part of the period to 2031 covered by the LAA, some of the sand and gravel supply previously delivered from Devon will be met from Somerset
  • indicating a potential need for this Plan to provide for further sand and gravel resources if the minimum landbank of seven years is to be maintained to 2031, subject to monitoring through future iterations of the LAA (our emphasis)
  • A more appropriate method is the use of a weighted ten year average, with greater emphasis given to the figures in later years than those earlier in the ten year period

On the flip-side, the LAA points out that:

  • [the] Minerals Plan will need to consider the relationship between the location of the reserves making up the landbank and the spatial pattern of working to be pursued
  • it would be unwise to assume that full substitution of one resource by another is feasible, or always desirable, as technical requirements may constrain this
  • Information from the minerals industry [Devon Stone Federation (2012)] highlights the particular qualities of the Pebble Beds resource

So whilst DCC's position may have shifted, it might only be towards a more balanced discussion, and it remains to be seen how the Council will support increased substitution by secondary, recycled and crushed rock fines, and allow for this in its forecast shortfall for sand and gravel. It is nonetheless a welcome indication of local people having some small influence in Devon's corridors of power, but not enough to become complacent. The irreparable loss of Devon farmland is at stake, and DCC has a long way to go before it embarks on a campaign on behalf of its electorate, as Staffordshire County Council did in 2010 by calling to end "Mineral Madness", prompting a "new allocation system [resulting in] ten million tonnes less quarrying over the next decade across the county".

Thursday, 6 December 2012

For AI it's all or nothing

The Head of Geological Services at Aggregate Industries explained to a number of people at a meeting today why, in his view, Straitgate Farm is so important to his company. For AI it's all or nothing. All if it wins permission, because in the decades following on from Straitgate, and with a foothold in the area, it will look to exploit its surrounding mineral rights. Nothing if permission fails, since any other application in the area would have a high chance of failure too. AI would instead turn its attention to Penslade, necessitating a new plant costing c.£2-3 million and losing geographical sales coverage.

AI's initial proposals for Straitgate were presented in a number of concept maps, computer models and cross sections. AI is only at the early stages of its investigations, but local people voiced their concerns, particularly about water. AI's Head of Geological Services admitted that, in his view, it was unlikely that permission would be extended at Blackhill beyond 2016, and that processing plant would more likely be moved to Rockbeare, where there are adequate water supplies and silt voids. Whilst the concept maps did show site access at the western point of the site, he thought it extremely unlikely this would transpire, recognising the more suitable location on the north side onto the old A30, if land access could be secured. He confirmed that the eastern half of the Straitgate site has been removed from AI's resource book, retrieval being uneconomic with the sand and gravel largely underwater and also covered by a thick seam of sandstone. AI has promised to supply further maps, images, drawings and information, which, permission forthcoming, will be posted here in due course.

Overall there's a lot at stake for AI, but the same could be said for the people of Ottery St Mary and West Hill - decades of quarrying here and in the surrounding area.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Mineral industry supports pond creation

RAF C-17 Globemaster flying
low over Straitgate Farm on its
way to land at Exeter Airport
Another press release from the MPA extolling the environmental credentials of its quarrying members has been issued, this time encouraging the creation of ponds. "MPA members are uniquely placed to create new clean water ponds, and existing important ponds and small lakes on restored mineral sites make a critical contribution to biodiversity."

Which is all very noble for those sites that do get restored back to nature, rather than something more industrial, but if quarrying at Straitgate Farm were ever to be given the go-ahead, the creation of ponds, which "quickly become biodiversity hotspots" attracting birdlife, would never be permitted. This photograph from last week clearly shows why. 

And with all the water issues at Straitgate Farm, both DCC and locals await details on how Aggregate Industries proposes to overcome that.

Monday, 3 December 2012

DCC publishes draft of its first Local Aggregate Assessment

DCC has today issued this comprehensive document to inform decisions on the level and location of future aggregate production. Secondary and recycled aggregates supply is discussed in some detail. DCC proposes to use a weighted 10-year rolling average in future, giving more emphasis to recent production figures, meaning the County "has a [sand and gravel] landbank of 15 years which indicates that DCC may have to make additional provision if a minimum landbank of seven years is to be maintained for its Plan period to 2031". DCC has invited a number of organisations to comment.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Did AI stick to its permitted exploration rights?

Aggregate Industries' personnel on site this week were friendly and professional, whilst being sensitive and accommodating to local peoples' concerns. Nevertheless, the simple task - relative to a full-scale quarry operation - of digging test pits still resulted in breaches, requiring intervention, of AI's permitted exploration rights - the same rights that AI reminded us of in its "To whom it may concern" letter.

There were three cases. Firstly, AI's operations were at times within the permitted limit of "50m of any part of an occupied residential building" which resulted in a heap of as-dug gravel having to be moved. AI may have had no other reasonable access to the site, but this was of no comfort to the those affected, especially when they had received no direct communication from the company before work started. Secondly, before a reminder of its permitted rights, AI planned to dig two 35 metre long trenches, substantially exceeding its allowed limit of "12 square metres in surface area" per pit. Finally, the pits "shall be filled with material from the site" but were actually refilled with as-dug sand and gravel from Venn Ottery quarry, which was a different colour and contained a high clay fraction. AI did not have the required written permission from DCC for this at the time it hauled the Venn Ottery material to Straitgate. Such permission was only received after pit-refilling had already started.

Minor transgressions, perhaps, but embarrassing for AI all the same. Based on what's been seen so far, would local people trust AI not to breach one or more of the multiple operating regulations of a full-scale quarry operation?

A few facts learnt from AI's week at Straitgate Farm

Digging test pits to assess the suitability of the gravel, and drilling boreholes to monitor groundwater levels, marks the start of a 12-18 month period of data-gathering by AI about the Straitgate Farm site. Consultants will be instructed to investigate biodiversity, highways, and hydrogeology. In 2014, AI hopes to be in a position to apply for planning permission, subject to the information collected showing no 'showstoppers'. AI is currently not interested in the Penslade site at Uffculme for sand and gravel.

Eight test pits were dug, providing almost 400 tonnes of sand and gravel to be processed in AI's plant at Blackhill. The Environment Agency visited the site to check on proceedings. No archaeology of note was found. The excavator made light work of the 6-7m deep pits, but the 6-wheel-drive haul truck frequently needed its help after becoming embedded in the wet muddy ground. The geology showed smaller pebbles than at Venn Ottery, but size distribution and the quality of the material will be assessed in due course in AI laboratories. A proportion of the sand and gravel from the test pits will be made into concrete blocks for strength analysis, and to determine the most efficient blends of gravel/sand/cement. Results are due around February 2013. There was more overburden than expected in a number of pits, up to 4 metres, or even more in places. Boreholes for six groundwater monitoring stations will have been drilled by next week, 3 more than originally planned. Data on groundwater levels will be collected over an 18 month period.

AI admits it must do better

To invade someone's neighbourhood with excavators, dumper trucks, low-loaders, HGVs, and borehole drilling rigs requires care and attention. It also needs communication, not only directly with local residents, but also with its men on the ground.

AI has agreed this week that it fell down on a number of issues, and recognises that it must do considerably better in future if it is to ever forge any sort of working relationship with local people. From this point onwards AI intends to be more open with the community. It intends to share data on, for example, groundwater levels and grading analysis results. It also intends to communicate its future plans in a more timely manner. AI recognises it has much ground to make up to repair its local image.

Cynics might think AI would say all that, now that it has embarked on its journey to win planning permission. Only time will tell exactly how open AI will be, and how much respect it will show to local people and their surroundings.