Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Mineral operators "uniquely placed to benefit nature", or so they tell us

The quarrying industry likes giving out awards - not to local communities at the brunt of its activities but to themselves. Earlier this month the Mineral Products Association was proud to announce its Restoration and Biodiversity Awards. Its Chief Executive said:
Once again our members have demonstrated how much good work they are doing to achieve high quality restoration and to protect and enhance biodiversity throughout the country. The innovations and partnerships are delivering progress, priority habitats and assets locally and for the UK. The industry is uniquely placed to benefit nature, its legacy is growing, its potential is being realised and now we hope that this is being recognised.
Leaving aside the MPA's central argument that "the [quarrying] industry is uniquely placed to benefit nature", a phrase which would seem oxymoronic to many readers, is this really the same industry we tweet about with stories of unrestored sites and disrupted local communities? The same industry wanting to permanently disfigure a corner of East Devon removing two miles of ancient hedgerows and dormouse habitat, risking ancient wet woodlands and private water supplies, sacrificing a 150 acre dairy farm? The same industry intending to leave what in return? A footpath. Aggregate Industries is obviously not looking to win any restoration and biodiversity prizes with Straitgate.

Ok, so it's not surprising that quarry companies gloss over their impacts, whilst at the same time making out that they are the saviours of nature conservation. But if they wanted to win over local communities, we would be able to tweet more stories like this:
and less like this:
Anybody interested in quarries that have been restored can watch the MPA videos below. It could be that the industry is finally putting its house in order, or it could be more corporate spin. People can make up their own minds. One or two of the schemes look quite imaginative. Others less so.

How did AI do in these awards? Shortlisted for three, no doubt disappointed not to win any.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Blackhill Quarry - part of our new "National Nature Park"

Sounds like big news! You'd think this would be in all the local papers; and news of a new "National Nature Park" would be in all the nationals. It's quite a claim by the Mineral Products Association:
The MPA has launched its new National Nature Park - a nationwide network of quarries that have been restored for wildlife and which are accessible to the public. The online resource includes 50 sites around the country totalling 4,000 hectares, with a range of facilities including nature trails, viewing hides and visitor centres. This is a web based concept which at launch highlights 50 sites around the country where our members can provide public access to sites where we have proven restoration success and biodiversity achievements.
On the face of it, this sounds like a great idea - the more quarries returned to nature and public access the better. But this National Park is a "web based concept", an "online resource", which is different to most people's idea of a National Park. And of course, 4000 hectares is merely a small fraction of the 45,000 hectares with quarrying permission and the thousands more hectares lying derelict, unrestored or brownfield. The size of the Peak District National Park by comparison is 143,700 ha.

But where the concept really falls apart is when you look more closely at one of these 50 sites. Our very own Aggregate Industries' Blackhill Quarry is apparently one of them - 68 ha, or 85ha whoever you believe, counting towards the 4000 ha total. How much of that area is open for public access? Well there's a footpath through the middle of the site, but otherwise the public are told to Keep Out - Danger! In fact, AI would still like this part of our new National Nature Park to be where it processes material quarried from Straitgate Farm, beyond when the site's permission expires in 2016.

How many more of the MPA's sites are like this one? Nothing seems to have changed. There is no new National Park - it's all just PR smoke and mirrors, some PR spin to give quarrying a better image.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Buckfastleigh and dormice

Hats off to the campaigners at Buckastleigh! Their perseverance and determination has paid off after a planning inspector ruled that Whitecleaves Quarry was not the right site to dump construction and demolition waste, and process incinerator bottom ash.

The appeal decision is worth reading, if for no other reason than to note what was material to the Inspector's decision. What was material was that the proposal did not deliver sustainable waste management. What was also material was the harm to biodiversity. In the Inspector's words:
The proposed facility would have some benefits, but overall I consider that the likely harm to biodiversity and the conflict with waste policy weighs against allowing the appeal.
What 'biodiversity' was pivotal in refusing the multi-million pound operation? One word - Dormice:
The spur proposed to be removed contains 0.12 ha of semi-mature broad-leaved woodland, which includes hazel dormouse habitat… The loss of semi-mature woodland and hazel dormouse habitat is a consideration which weighs against the proposal. This would be so irrespective of whether the spur includes any ancient woodland.
What would the Inspector make of Aggregate Industries' plans to destroy not 0.3 acres, but almost two miles - about 10x the area - of dormouse habitat in ancient hedgerows at Straitgate? Hedgerows identified in the Devon Biodiversity Records Centre Ecological Assessment of 2001 as being of "high wildlife value" and all on the 1840 tithe map; hedgerows identified in the same report as being a "suitable habitat for dormice"; hedgerows where the existence of dormice has now been confirmed. Would he just laugh?

AI would hope it could 'displace' the dormice - one of Britain's most endangered mammals, nearing extinction after suffering a 40% decline in numbers over the last 20 years - but this would only be in agreement with Natural England, an agency that has already had much to say about Straitgate. In any case the site is bounded by roads, and "dormice can't cross roads".

When you now add dormice - a European Protected Species - to the mix of constraints for this site, constraints that include the risk to drinking water supplies - demonstrated by the Environment Agency's newly delineated SPZs, the risk to wetlands in Ancient Woodland - a protected and irreplaceable habitat, and the risk of birdstrike to aircraft safety, AI's plan for Ottery St Mary seems more implausible as time goes on. If you add processing as-dug material off-site, up to 7 unsustainable miles away, then the whole scheme looks farcical. And for what? Not some nationally rare and precious mineral, but sand and gravel.

With any one of the above a "showstopper", as DCC would say, what local people can't understand is why the Council still seems to be entertaining the idea of Straitgate as its preferred site.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Which part of the EA's response last year on SPZs did AI not understand?

A plethora of documents on the subject of Straitgate and Devon's Minerals Plan have now been written by various parties, but the significance of one paragraph has seemingly been overlooked.

Earlier this year, the Environment Agency imposed SPZs - source protection zones - at Straitgate to protect peoples' drinking water. At the time, AI and its consultants were investigating the locality, and the significance of the SPZs was brushed to one side. Perhaps it was because AI belittled the SPZs' importance. Perhaps it was because consultants had rubbished how the SPZs had been calculated.

Whatever the reason, DCC has made it crystal clear on numerous occasions that Straitgate cannot be relied upon as a Preferred Site in Devon's new Minerals Plan if the EA doesn't consider the site to be viable or deliverable. It's an obvious pre-condition if DCC's Plan is to be found sound.

The EA has since rebutted the accusation that the SPZ calculations were incorrect. But it is the EA's earlier consultation response, written in April 2012, that needs to be re-read in the light of the new SPZs. At this time the EA said:
When our groundwater team map the Source Protection Zones (SPZs) for all of the private water supplies in this area I expect that [Straitgate] will be an important part of their catchment areas… if this area is shown to be a significant part of the catchment for the water features near Cadhay, its deliverability as a viable site would seem unlikely.
Well, the SPZs have been mapped, and they DO show that the area forms a "significant part of the catchment for the water features near Cadhay". It MUST therefore follow, as far as the EA is concerned, that Straitgate's "deliverability as a viable site would seem unlikely".

Parties may argue about what probability is construed by the phrase "seem unlikely". What is beyond doubt is that a planning inspector would make a finding of unsoundness on any council plan relying on a site with an EA label "deliverability as a viable site would seem unlikely" stamped across it.

AI must work with a county's Minerals Plan, not against it. If Straitgate is not in Devon's Plan it will mean the county does not want the site quarried. If it's any easier for AI to understand in picture form, here's the SPZ again. It's the green line, the line within which AI thinks it can dig below the water table.

Environment Agency

Minerals Plan Timetable

DCC has revised dates, subject to approval, for the remaining stages of its Minerals Plan:

        Publication for public and statutory consultation       April 2014
        Submission to the Secretary of State July 2014
        Examination in Public November 2014
        Formal Adoption March 2015

Monday, 14 October 2013

RAF Fairford

Aggregate Industries has assured us in the past that it's quite used to running quarry operations where there are airport safeguarding and birdstrike considerations. "Just look at RAF Fairford" we were told, where AI has nearby sand and gravel operations, as an example of how the company manages quarrying, water, aircraft and birds.

So we looked at RAF Fairford. Did AI have a point? If AI can quarry near RAF Fairford, surely it must be ok - at least on the birdstrike front - for it to quarry at Straitgate, under Exeter Airport's flightpath?

However, Fairford - home to the annual Royal International Air Tattoo but "currently a standby airfield and therefore not in everyday use" - does have its share of birdstrike concerns, made worse by Cotswold Water Park. Studies have been undertaken and "concerns by the MOD over bird strike at RAF Fairford have lead to the creation of a bird strike working group". Moreover, Wiltshire County Council, in proposing three sites for future sand and gravel quarrying around RAF Fairford, has birdstrike figuring highly, e.g. Cox's Farm "The critical need to reduce the risk of bird strike associated with air traffic at RAF Fairford is a key consideration for the working and restoration of the site".

So, the issue of birdstrike is not as benign for AI in the Cotswolds as we were lead to believe. More importantly, the AI spokesman had failed to tell the whole story about how AI works its Manor Farm Quarry, Kempsford, near RAF Fairford. This 2003 article, however, does:
In response to the RAF’s concerns over the possibility of birdstrikes, the quarry will be worked dry to minimize the amount of standing water and hence reduce the site’s attraction to waterfowl. With the water table lying just below ground surface, this involves perpetual pumping and the licensed discharge of around 7,000m3 of water a day from a newly created perimeter drainage ditch into the local Dudgrove brook. 
Final restoration at Manor Farm Quarry will be to agriculture utilizing a mix of backfilling to existing levels using silt and clay from the extraction process, together with low-level restoration for the remainder of the site. Low-level restoration will be achieved using the underlying Oxford Clay to create a sealed drainage basin which will be surcharged with site-generated subsoils and topsoils. A small pumping facility will be required to remove excessive rainfall from this basin.
In other words, to avoid creating new bird flight lines, Manor Farm will be worked dry and restored back to remain dry, in contrast with AI plans supplied for Straitgate that involve digging below the water table, and restoration that encourages water to pond along the eastern boundary.

Now AI wants to extend Manor Farm Quarry, but again, as this recent article makes clear, AI
will be restoring both quarry sites to agricultural land after work has taken place. If the land was left as a pool of water, the birds attracted to the area would affect the flight paths of the nearby RAF base.
So when, in AI's own words, "due to the proximity of Fairford Airfield, water based restoration/after-use is not appropriate", why does Aggregate Industries think that for Exeter Airport, an international airport carrying hundreds of thousands of passengers a year, water based restoration would be appropriate? Why does it think Exeter Airport would welcome ponding, "a priority wetland habitat" and an inherent increase in birdstrike risk directly under its flight path, for ever after?

That's simply reckless, and shows a complete absence of respect for Exeter Airport's safeguarding aspirations and the carriers and passengers who fly in and out every day.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

The significance of the humble dormouse - a European Protected Species

So now 'habitat for dormice' can be added to the list of reasons why Straitgate should not be quarried. As posted last week, Aggregate Industries' ecological consultants SLR have found evidence that the hedgerows at Straitgate are a habitat for dormice - a European Protected Species - a species estimated to number just 45,000 in England and Wales - a species protected under the Conservation of Habitats & Species Regulations 2010 and the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981.

This is an important development. It will not be up to Aggregate Industries or its consultants to decide whether phased working or advanced planting or anything else would give enough protection to the dormice present. AI will instead need to convince Natural England that something as invasive as quarrying - tearing up some 2 miles of ancient hedgerows - would be acceptable in an area providing sanctuary to such a rare animal. Natural England states that for an activity likely to result in disturbance or killing of a European Protected Species or damage to its habitat a 'licence' would be required. "Licences for activities prohibited under wildlife legislation are only issued for specific purposes, where there is valid justification". Justification? It must be demonstrated that:
the project is for the purpose of preserving public health or public safety or other reasons of overriding public interest, and there is no satisfactory alternative, and the action will not be detrimental to the population of the species
Could this impact on AI's plans? Well in 2010, dormice impacted on Morrisons' plans, when planning officers recommended refusal for a £12m supermarket and football ground in Wadebridge because "there [was] a reasonable likelihood of dormice being present". But whereas evidence has been found at Straitgate, in Wadebridge it was enough that dormice were "spotted 2km away".

Saturday, 5 October 2013

What does it take to make a phone call?

Culm Waste & Minerals Group will be used to making phone calls, as we are, to extract information from various sources. For others - aggregate companies, consultants, councils - this act seems altogether more difficult, as CWMG have discovered.

One of the main considerations in the planning determination of Aggregate Industries' bagging plant at Uffculme, was, in DCC's words, "highway and transportation issues". AI's Transport Assessment, performed by SLR, contained the passage:
3.1.1 The junction is a four-arm grade-separated interchange that forms part of the Strategic Road Network (SRN) and is, as such, controlled by the Highways Agency (HA). Given that some limited effects to the SRN will ensue as a result of the proposed development, it is expected that the HA would be consulted on the planning application for the proposed development. Indeed, foreseeing this, SLR issued a request for a scoping opinion to the HA undercover of an email dated 11th February 2013. Regrettably, however, no response had been provided at the time of preparation.
Faced with no reply, you might have expected SLR to have phoned the HA to illicit the response needed for such an important matter. Both CWMG and ourselves have spoken to the HA before - it's not difficult. And emails can go missing. Emails to an AI estates manager we know seem to get lost all the time.

But the surprising thing here, as CWMG have picked up on, is that even though SLR envisaged the HA would be consulted by DCC, it would seem - according to the HA themselves - that they never were, and the relevant Report by the Head of Planning, Transportation and Environment, recommending approval, indeed contains no mention of the HA as a consultee or otherwise. It would seem that DCC didn't bother to pick up the phone to the HA either. The HA should be consulted if:
Development [is] likely to result in a material increase in the volume or a material change in the character of traffic entering or leaving a trunk road.
On the face of it, moving an aggregates distribution depot to a site close to a motorway junction would constitute a "material change", and it's a serious matter if a statutory consultee should have been consulted but has not been. It would appear that DCC officers decided for themselves that the impact on the SRN was acceptable. It will now be for CWMG to consider whether to take the matter further.

Of course, and as we discovered ourselves recently, certain parties are generally less inclined to make a phone call if they are concerned about what the answer might be.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

With a bit of joined up thinking councils could conserve aggregates, divert material from landfill and save millions of pounds too

Is anyone else surprised - shocked even - that the grits and aggregates from road salt and road dressings, a large part of road sweepings and gully waste, are typically landfilled?

Across the UK, it has been conservatively estimated that some 370,000 tonnes of such material goes to landfill each year. The landfill tax alone for this amount, £80/tonne in 2014, would cost councils £30m, and with potential cost implications from new Environment Agency guidance ‘Recovery of Street Sweepings and Gully Emptyings’, some question whether councils can afford not to recycle such waste from now on.

In Europe, sweepings and gully waste are commonly recycled, and in 2012 Warwickshire County Council installed a recycling plant in Wolverhampton to work in conjunction with six other authorities. It will recycle around 40,000 tonnes of road sweepings and gully waste each year at half the cost of landfill, with the aggregates obtained being used either in construction or remixed with rock salt for use on roads in the winter.

Councils are looking for ways to save money. Here's a way to save money and landfill and aggregates. What's stopping them?

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Ecological Update - Dormice at Straitgate and the significance of Cadhay Bog

A report detailing the ecological significance of the area in and around Straitgate will be produced next year. In the meantime, much investigative work has already taken place and further studies will be undertaken next spring.

Aggregate Industries' consultants, SLR, have confirmed that the hedges at Straitgate act as a habitat for dormice, but consider that phased working over an extended period would give the protected animals an opportunity to move should quarrying take place. Natural England may of course take a different view. As expected, bats also populate the site.

SLR reconfirmed the ecological significance of Cadhay Bog, and recognise that mitigation here may be problematical. Cadhay Bog - ancient woodland with wetland habitats - has been confirmed to be "in very good condition", with "significant biodiversity interest"; SLR's ecologist thought it to be "wonderful woodland". Hydrologically, SLR believe that the primary impact of any quarrying would be on Cadhay Bog, and for AI's proposal to go forward this would need to be resolved. It may be possible to maintain water flows by creating ponds that would allow water to infiltrate back into the pebble beds - but again the Environment Agency may have something to say on such proposals. Any ponding, however, would obviously conflict with the requirements of Exeter Airport and the inherent risk of birdstrike.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

What happens after the groundwater is all messed up? Who takes responsibility?

When quarrying in breach of planning conditions and below the water table has messed up the groundwater so much that the "water was ‘unsafe for human consumption’ and contained traces of E.coli and fuel", and local people had to "bathe and shower at friends’ houses" and "had no basic water supply for in excess of 13 months", what then?

Deny all responsibility of course, which is just what the quarry company connected has done. "To our knowledge [quarrying is] having no effect at all on the spring water" says the MD of the quarry company, and "if the residents want clean drinking water they should do what the rest of the locals have to do and pay for it”.

Not a helpful response, when the "Environment Agency, the council and an independent water specialist have all confirmed that problems have been caused because the quarry breached consents". Spring water was plainly available to these properties before the quarry polluted it, and many people in more rural areas often have no access to mains supply even if they wanted it. In this case alone, the cost of replacing the contaminated pipework has been quoted at £70k. Which is of course the reason why liability has been denied.

And if water supplies were depleted or contaminated here - not for two properties but for 100 people - how much would that cost to correct? How ready would Aggregate Industries be to accept liability?

“This will be a question of survival for the concrete industry”

DCC is making plans for a steady supply of aggregates until 2031, but what will the building industry look like then? What materials will be used? Will the cement and aggregates industry even be around? "Buildings rising from the ashes: Recycling concrete from buildings that are no longer needed requires long-term thinking at the building’s inception" reports how researchers are raising these very questions. Here are a few sentences from the article:
Urban mining is increasingly being taken seriously by industry... Concrete buildings, when demolished, can serve as an excellent source of new building materials. “Instead of transporting aggregates from far away, we can use local buildings as a source for aggregates” 
The advantage of recycling the cement component is that it does not release CO2 into the atmosphere 
Tests have shown that the concrete made from recycled aggregate has better mechanical properties than concrete made using virgin aggregates 
"As more and more buildings are required to be designed for disassembly, it will be important for the concrete industry to demonstrate that they can compete, otherwise they will be replaced by steel and other materials that are easier to use for disassembly. This will be a question of survival for the concrete industry”
Is DCC allocating the right materials? Has it factored in the future? A future when "urban mining" may replace the quarrying of virgin aggregates, when demolition material is no longer landfilled, when suitable areas to quarry have been exhausted.