Friday, 31 May 2013

There are orchids in those woods and a whole lot more...

An ecology expert from SLR Consultants undertook an initial walkover survey of local woodland this week, to gauge what future ecological work would be required in relation to Aggregate Industries' preparations for a planning application to quarry Straitgate Farm. His route took him into ancient woodlands, past swathes of bluebells, small woodland ponds, badger sets and purple orchids.

Bat surveys have already started at Straitgate, and some people will have seen the 'tubes' that have been put up to detect dormice activity. From our own experience there are many bats, and the ecology expert would be surprised if there were not dormice in the area too. There are also a number of small woodland ponds in the locality with ideal conditions for great crested newts, and in time these sites will be surveyed for their presence. All these species are protected and would need to be moved or 'persuaded' to move out of harm's way before any quarrying could commence.

What particularly interested the ecology expert on his walkover were parts of Cadhay Bog. This area is a wetland habitat reliant on water from the Straitgate aquifer. The boggy ground, the plant species and the topography all indicate that Cadhay Bog is not just ancient woodland - i.e. continuously wooded since at least 1600 AD - but very ancient or 'primary' ancient woodland. In other words it may have been woodland for up to 10,000 years - a remnant of the prehistoric woodland or 'wildwood' that colonised Britain after the last Ice Age.

Such areas of woodland are rare. The Woodland Trust says that "only two per cent of Britain remains as ancient woodland today" and the percentage that has uninterrupted physical continuity with the wildwood obviously much less.

Such habitats are protected, and the NPPF says "planning permission should be refused for development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats, including ancient woodland and the loss of aged or veteran trees found outside ancient woodland, unless the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss".

AI may have difficulty in persuading the Environment Agency, Natural England and others that it can quarry Straitgate, and remove unsaturated and saturated parts of the aquifer, without changing the water regime supplying the wetland habitat of this ancient woodland. To do so could cause irreparable harm, and will no doubt be a focus for AI's hydrogeology consultants in the weeks and months ahead.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Hydrogeology consultants take another look at Straitgate and surroundings

Yesterday, hydrogeology consultants from SLR and AMEC again assessed the streams and springs, originating from and around Straitgate Farm that supply the County Wildlife Sites and peoples' drinking water, in order to better understand the hydrogeology of the site. Over a period of time, flow rates of at least two points in each of the four streams will be spot monitored to assist this task.

AMEC has already had discussions with Aggregate Industries over a number of issues. AI has subsequently decided to leave one metre of sand and gravel over any potential quarry floor - equivalent to a loss of 0.5 million tonnes over the 25 hectare area. AI has also decided to avoid any scheme requiring active dewatering - pumping out water from a void below the water table - for risk of derogating nearby water sources. In addition, the eastern slope of any quarry should be left as a virgin restoration slope rather than any sheer face or infill, again reducing the recoverable deposit but allowing water to recharge the aquifer.

All this does, however, ignore the level of the water table. AI is still optimistically expecting to quarry below the water table during the summer months, when the groundwater level is lower. Water would therefore back up against the eastern slope to form water features at other times of the year, in direct conflict with Exeter Airport, who made it clear, for reasons of birdstrike, that it didn't want any water at all. The events at Heathrow today go some way to explaining why.

Furthermore, as quarrying at Thorn Trees Plantation was not permitted beyond one metre above the water table, it is surprising that AI considers it would be able to do so at Straitgate, where water plays such an important role. It's less surprising, perhaps, when one considers that being restricted to quarrying above the water table would reduce the recoverable resource by over a million tonnes, and therefore throw into question the viability of the complete project.

Environment Agency imposes SPZs at Straitgate

Source Protection Zones (SPZs) have been invoked by the Environment Agency at Straitgate to safeguard the groundwater feeding private water supplies at Cadhay Barton. The EA has been made aware of the many water users and receptors around the site, and as a result of the new SPZs additional testing will now be required to model groundwater flows, to make sure that whatever Aggregate Industries does at Straitgate would not derogate or pollute water supplies. To this aim, four more boreholes will be drilled, piezometers installed and groundwater readings taken over 12 months.

Besides the zones indicated, the EA does in any case assume that "all sources intended for human consumption without a bespoke SPZ have at least a default SPZ1 of a 50-metre radius". The EA's Groundwater protection: Principles and practice (GP3) explains their purpose, but essentially "SPZs are an important tool for identifying highly sensitive groundwater areas and for focusing control or advice beyond the general groundwater protection measures applied to aquifers as a whole".

The map below indicates the new SPZs, together with the underlying geology: yellow for the pebble beds, orange for sandstone. AI has confirmed that the eastern part of Straitgate Farm with the overlying sandstone will (for geological, water and economic reasons) be left alone in perpetuity.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Would tourists still catch the bus to Ottery St Mary?

© Denis Chick
Maybe not, if a report this week is anything to go by. An independent study prepared for the National Park Authority, with respect to proposals for a new potash mine in the North York Moors, claims £41 million would be cut in direct tourist expenditure there each year as a result.

How would an Aggregate Industries quarry at Straitgate Farm impact the economy of Ottery St Mary?

As the head of planning at the North York Moors National Park Authority, said: “People might say ‘there’s two big mines in that area, it’s just not a place I want to go to anymore’.” In the same way, people might say "There's that huge quarry right at the entrance to the Otter Valley on the road into Ottery. It was such a beautiful area, but it's just not the same now - we'll go somewhere else."

If it was just Straitgate, Ottery might bounce back. But in time, having exhausted Straitgate, AI has already confirmed that it would be looking to exploit further mineral rights held nearby. There has been quarrying at Blackhill on Woodbury Common since before the 1930s, but it's due to end in 2016. If AI were to secure a foothold at Straitgate, it could be here for generations too: Ottery St Mary - once famous as the birthplace of Samuel Taylor Coleridge - now an AI base for sand and gravel quarrying, associated works and inert landfill operations? Doesn't sound helpful to Ottery's tourist economy.

Could a quarry help Ottery's prospects? Well, let's see -

Come off at Daisymount, direction Ottery. Pass AI's quarry on your left. Would that help Ottery?
A crater on the landscape damaging views from East Hill Strips AONB. Would that help Ottery?
HGV quarry traffic. Would that help Ottery?
Removing groundwater storage on a hill above a town prone to flooding. Would that help Ottery?
Risking water sources to private supplies and medieval fishponds at Cadhay. Would that help Ottery?
Industrial development in the quarry void. Would that help Ottery?

As the British Geological Survey Planning for Minerals Guide admits:
..the use of this land for aggregates production can physically displace or negatively effect existing or alternative economic activities such as tourism or agriculture that may be more economically sustainable and beneficial to the community in the longer term.
Aggregate Industries' gain would be Ottery St Mary's loss.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Net positive - what's AI going to give back?

There's an argument that companies just out to maximise profit are seen "as built for another time", and that the debate has moved from businesses being "less bad, less rubbish, less evil" to becoming net positive contributors to society:
Today, businesses that pursue commercial interests without giving due consideration to the communities they're involved with are not competitively advantaged; ... and are well on their way to becoming socially irrelevant to customers… Brands such as BT, Coca Cola, Kingfisher, IKEA and Rio Tinto are seeking to go one step further than simply doing well by doing good. They are pioneering a new breed of sustainability strategy that doesn't just create shared value for society, but means they give back more than they take… Kingfisher and IKEA aim to create more forest than they use in product; Coca Cola aims to return as much water to nature as it uses in its products and their production; BT wants to help consumers cut carbon by at least three times the full carbon impact of its business by offering greener products.
We all know what Aggregate Industries takes - from the ground and from local communities - and how environmentally disrupting and polluting its business is, but what could it give back?

If AI thinks that giving back is screening a quarry with a few trees, hoping for the best when it comes to dust, noise and flooding, and then, if it cannot win permission for something more lucrative - or sell the void to someone who can, repair the damage in 10 maybe 50 years later, it needs to think again.

Quarries are seen as bad neighbours. In fact the worst neighbour, "beating casinos and power stations as most hated form of development". Why is this?

Could it be that quarry operators are seen as just taking and giving nothing back, and then reneging on promises they make about restoration? People might be prepared to accept a few years of aggravation, noise, dust and loss of amenity if they could believe the land would be restored - improved even - rather than ending up with incinerators, composting, landfill or the rest.

Until its demise, the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund provided a modicum of benefit to local communities affected by quarrying. Now there's nothing. So what could AI as a company give back? Is there anything at all?

Well it could commit to year-on-year increases in the use of secondary and recycled over primary aggregate. It could work through the mountains of china clay waste aggregates littered across South West England, before despoiling any more greenfield sites. It could keep restoration promises, and leave land measurably and demonstrably better than when it arrived. It could include the amount of land restored as an environmental business metric - alongside carbon, energy, water, etc. It could give land over for community use - land that has been restored or is no longer viable for quarrying. It could value that land, and record it as a donation in its annual report; call it compensation for what a community next to a quarry has had to endure.

Does any of that make business sense? Perhaps not, if the only metric by which a company is judged is profitability. But customers increasingly measure a company by its social and environmental footprint, as the moves by BT, IKEA and Rio Tinto demonstrate. 

AI will have heard these arguments many times before. At its 'Materiality Event' - a day encompassing "a series of workshops designed to identify and prioritise material issues for [AI]" - in London 2012 (with AI's CEO, managers and a variety of stakeholders present) AI was warned that it "needs to balance what it takes out of the environment and society by putting something back".

How much does AI currently put back? In the UK for 2011: 2 open days, 1474 hours recorded as community activities, and about £164k in donations. More than some companies, less than others, and nowhere near enough for its size or for a company that causes as much environmental damage. The donations amount to less than 0.02% of AI's UK turnover; that's less than 2p out of every £100 of sales or less than 5% of Holcim's CEO's "compensation" for 2012. Who needs compensating more - local communities affected by cement works and quarries, or the Gnomes of Zurich?

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Activity at Hillhead again

DCC has finally received a planning application for Aggregate Industries' bagging plant at the block works near Uffculme - "a direct replacement for the Company’s former aggregate bagging plant, located at Bishops Court Quarry in Exeter". AI had been running a bagged aggregates distribution operation out of the mothballed Hillhead Quarry without permission. Even after DCC had served AI notice to clear the site, there were local reports that AI continued to deliver bagged aggregates to Hillhead. DCC said:
We are keeping the situation under review and the company has been served notice requiring them to provide us with information on land ownership should the need to take formal action arise.
Hillhead was not cleared by the deadline imposed by DCC, but AI has evidently secured an extension. Is AI's haphazard modus operandi any way for a multinational business to be conducting its affairs, any way to be integrating itself into the community it disrupts?

An AI spokesman claimed that if the bagging plant went ahead around 12 jobs would be created:
Owing to changes in our leases, we have decided to expand operations out of Hillhead Quarry. It's good news and will bring jobs to the area - although until the business is fully permitted we won't be quite sure on numbers…
How a plant that's a "direct replacement" can create 12 jobs, only AI can answer. According to AI's planning statement "4.1 There are 12 full time employees associated with the existing concrete products factory. 4.2 The proposed aggregate bagging plant would employ 12 people...". Good to see AI's PR machine hard at work.

AI's application can be found here. DCC will accept comments until 24 May.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Could this happen at Straitgate Farm?

An investigation is underway following complaints that a north Northumberland quarry operation has affected the water supply of nearby homes.
reports the Northumberland Gazette.

Blaxter Quarry - Les Hull [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
… a Minerals and Waste Site Monitoring Report seen by the Gazette states: "The conclusions provided by the Environment Agency are that the north-eastern area of the quarry has been excavated below the groundwater table, and that this has caused the sediment pollution at the spring."
Of course, the quarry owners deny liability, arguing:
The hydrology report we have suggests that the most likely cause of the problem is increased water-table levels at times of high rainfall. There have been record levels of rainfall in the latter part of last year.
The local councillor is obviously unconvinced:
Our water supply is something very sacred to us all, and what the residents of Blaxter Cottages have had to deal with - pollutants in their water supply - is quite frankly appalling
Around Straitgate, it wouldn't be just two remote moorland properties at risk, but 100 people - all reliant on an aquifer remaining unpolluted.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Landfill, and weasel words

Aggregate Industries has a mothballed quarry for sale in Scotland. Local people have been worried it would be used for landfill. A spokesperson for AI said:
As for the question on potential landfill use, converting sites to landfill use is not Aggregate's policy as a company, and has never been considered.
Does AI take people for fools? Because you have to look no further than Hillhead - where AI has sold worked-out voids to Viridor, the waste management company. Or to the disposal last week of Caird Bardon - a company that operates the Peckfield Landfill Site near Leeds - a company that was 50% owned by AI. Or to Sands Farm Quarry, Calne, referred to in a post here last week, where Viridor is filling AI's earth scar. In fact, in the list of registered landfills, AI has 17 sites. Some may be used for inert waste - for example Blackhill and Rockbeare are listed - rather than household landfill, but a number of Viridor's 35 registered landfill sites were once AI quarries.

So AI may not be in the household landfill business, just as Viridor is not in the business of digging holes. But the two industries go hand-in-hand, and people understand that.

Statements such as the one above make people angry. Angry because, as a company with an invasive business model, AI finds it difficult to be straight and open with people. And to barge into a community with plans for open-cast mining needs trust, honesty, openness, fairness - not spin, deception and weasel words.

postscript: Asbestos quarry refusal to be challenged at appeal

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Stop the press - a sand and gravel quarry is to be restored to farmland

Rare as it seems, it can happen - a planning application for a sand and gravel quarry to be restored back to farmland. But why are we writing about it here?

The sand and gravel quarry had been left to become an area of "dereliction" - "the void is in an unrestored status overgrown with weeds". "During the extraction period at Chanceinn Quarry no restoration or reclamation works were carried out. With the purchase of the farm a number of improvement works have been carried out with the view to improving the return from the land."

So the quarry operator profited from the resource, and the landscape was left having paid the price. What will it take to restore now? "Waste soil would be delivered to the site by local haulage contractors operating on nearby groundwork projects", up to 20 lorry movements a day for the next five years. The impact of a quarry on local people does not end when the last bucket of sand is removed.

However, when it comes to Aggregate Industries and modern planning consents, surely there's no worry that it would leave any of its sites derelict? No, AI can be trusted to find something altogether more profitable to do with a hole in the ground - although Hillhead Quarry, at least until locals exposed its illegal bagging operation recently, had given the impression of dereliction ever since operations were mothballed there in 2008.