Saturday, 31 May 2014

The £6 million question

Modification orders were served on Aggregate Industries to restrict quarrying at Blackhill Quarry in 1999, following the introduction of SPA and SAC European nature conservation designations on Woodbury Common. AI was compensated by Defra for the loss of future quarrying. We have referred to this compensation in the past, and a recent FOI request by another party has confirmed the exact details. The final compensation figure reflected the fact that in 2002 AI was granted permission to quarry Thorn Tree Plantation, adjacent to the SPA and SAC.

People will surely want to know why, having received £6 million more than 10 years ago, AI continues to operate on Woodbury Common, and why AI continues to think it can use the site to process any material it should win at Straitgate beyond 2016, when Blackhill’s permission finally expires.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

“Under-engagement is the biggest risk”

Many will agree that communication is not Aggregate Industries' strongest point. But just how should quarrying and mining companies communicate with the communities that they impact? And how has social media changed everything?

All over the world experience tells us that conflict around mining is increasing, communities are not convinced a mine in their backyard will benefit them, governments have mixed views on the benefits of exploiting their natural resources and investor confidence is dropping. Today, more than ever, mining is a marriage, a long-term relationship between a community, a company and their government. It will not succeed without overcoming conflict and misunderstanding. Technological innovation and an increase in society’s expectations are pushing the industry to build relationships and create mutual understanding in new ways. Simply sharing information is no longer enough.

Here are a few lines taken from the document, starting with a warning:
In 2011 a junior exploration company operating in a well-known mining region was riding high. The company’s project was progressing nicely and it had secured a respected international investor as a major shareholder. Seemingly out of nowhere the company found itself the target of online petitions and protests (organised by mass text messages) that drew hundreds of people. Its environmental permits were eventually denied and the project stalled. The company’s share price took a major hit and it had to completely reinvent itself and its image, including changing its name. The company had less than 50 employees and only one person focused purely on communication.
In its 2012-2013 survey of mining executives, Ernst and Young found that maintaining a social license was the second highest risk facing the sector. When trust is lost, the cost is financial and reputational. 
Social media is also changing the way people engage with companies as platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook create communities who expect to be heard and influence change.
Most companies had tentatively experimented with communicating through social media but were concerned about the seemingly endless resources that such engagement could take. On a limited budget, traditional engagement channels – face-to-face dialogue, media engagement and community programs – were favoured. But nearly all respondents believed that this under-investment could be a major risk if they were not prepared to respond to online influencers or to pick up what is being said online before it becomes “fact”.
The document gives its Top 10 tips on “Using communication to support sustainable development”; one is "Embrace digital dialogue”, another is "Find more opportunities to listen”:
The old attitude of ‘the less we tell them, the better’ is no longer valid. Information gets out fast. Social media is the best listening tool the world has ever known.
How much does Aggregate Industries “embrace digital dialogue” with the communities it impacts? Click @AggregateUK to see how much.

Why should Aggregate Industries and other mining corporations want to engage with local communities? One very obvious reason is dealt with in a paper entitled "The costs of conflict with local communities in the extractive industry".

Monday, 19 May 2014


Groundwater measurements have now been recorded for 15 months from six of the boreholes at Straitgate Farm, and for 8 months from the other five. The borehole central to the proposed site has seen groundwater rise by about 6 metres during each of the last two winters, to a level where almost all of the pebble beds are below the water table. It is worth noting that Aggregate Industries' permission at Thorn Trees Plantation, Blackhill Quarry, was to only quarry down to one metre above the maximum level of the water table, to protect the surrounding hydrology.

AI has still not demonstrated to DCC that it could quarry the site with 'acceptable' impacts. This has delayed the County’s Minerals Plan yet further. Last week DCC wrote:
I have received no further information from Aggregate Industries, and it is therefore difficult for us to make any progress on the sand and gravel element of the Minerals Plan. We cannot come to a view on the inclusion or otherwise of Straitgate Farm in the Minerals Plan until we have adequate information on potential impacts, notably on the groundwater issue and its implications for water supplies, habitats and the airport, together with the opportunity to seek the further views of the Environment Agency, Natural England and Exeter Airport.

Perhaps it's time to consult the MOD too?

Here's a photograph of a giant RAF Boeing C-17 Globemaster flying low over Straitgate Farm last week; it's not just civil aircraft that use Exeter Airport.

In response to Oxfordshire's Minerals Plan the MOD wrote: "it is crucial that the MOD is invited to comment further once specific sites have been allocated to ensure that the birdstrike risk is appropriately addressed". In response to DCC's Waste Plan the MOD wrote: "MOD reviews the development of waste management facilities; quarry restoration; wetland features as these have the potential to attract and support large and, or, flocking bird species hazardous to aircraft safety".

Secondary aggregates

Cllr Claire Wright asked the following question at Devon County Council's Annual Meeting last week:
Does the Chairman of the Development Management Committee consider that sufficient use is made of secondary aggregates in Devon? Would he indicate what measures Devon County Council has been taking to maximise sustainable use of mineral resources?
This was Cllr Brook's written response:
Annual sales of secondary aggregates, derived from waste from china clay and other minerals, have been in the region of 400,000 tonnes over the past five years. Together with an estimated 1.2 million tonnes of recycled aggregates (from construction and demolition waste) each year, these materials have made a significant contribution to meeting Devon’s needs for construction aggregates. While a higher level of sales of secondary and recycled aggregates would be welcomed in reducing reliance on quarried aggregates (which amount to around 2.7 million tonnes), their use is dependent to a large extent on the procurement decisions made by developers together with fiscal measures such as the Aggregates Levy. 
In its role as mineral planning authority, Devon County Council’s emerging Minerals Plan will pursue a sustainable approach to aggregates supply that places emphasis on the need to reduce the use of aggregates, and then to use secondary and recycled materials in preference to quarried aggregates. The Plan will therefore view favourably proposals to increase the output of secondary and recycled aggregates. However, the need for aggregates to meet high-specification uses, together with the uneven distribution of secondary aggregate resources, mean that Devon will continue to require a supply of quarried aggregates as part of a sustainable solution.

In highway maintenance, emphasis is placed on long term durability, reducing the overall need for aggregates, while recycled materials and secondary aggregates are utilised whenever possible (although in the south west of England this is not always the most cost effective option with primary sources nearby). Examples of works that encourage recycling and secondary aggregates include specifying a minimum content of 10% recycled road planings in new asphalt materials and in-situ recycling of road materials for large schemes.
A report prepared for Imerys in 2005, Feasibility of China Clay secondary aggregate use, is one of the most thorough we have seen on the subject. Here are a few lines from it:
The objective of the study was to consider the feasibility of moving large quantities of secondary China Clay waste materials from their existing locations to new markets outside the current local market area.
The use of China Clay wastes from the existing tips offers the opportunity for significant improvement in both the existing landform and for creating or recreating biodiversity habitats.
With a kaolin mining history of around 250 years there is now a significant mining legacy of surface tips covering a large amount of the 26 square mile clay working area in Cornwall. There are similar surface tips associated with the clay working areas in South Devon and Dorset.
It is evident from the research that recycled and secondary aggregates are still not used to their full potential, often used for general fill when in fact many secondary aggregates, China Clay waste included, is capable of much higher value applications. As a consequence of this the potential market for secondary aggregates is currently not being realised and there exists further potential in the secondary aggregates market in terms of tonnage and performance.
It does seem perverse that more cannot be made of this waste material within the region that it already blights, either transporting by rail or ship to local wharves and quays. 

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Statement from AMEC

Groundwater levels and spot flow measurements have been recorded by AMEC on behalf of AI at Straitgate since January 2013 in order to help to refine the understanding of the baseline water environment. This work has enabled an appreciation of the local groundwater regime and the establishment of the seasonal range in flows at springs and in watercourses that flow off the site. This is proving useful in giving a stronger understanding of the flow of water in and out of the area under investigation and the catchments served. For example measurements show that a large proportion of the downstream streamflow is derived from baseflow to the east of the site, although more work is needed to quantify the effect of any potential reductions in spring flow. Using the groundwater level data some initial interpretation can also be made about the effect of geological faulting east of the proposed extraction area on the groundwater regime. This faulting appears to act as a partial barrier to groundwater flow, with groundwater from the site partially emerging from headwater springs, and partially flowing across the faulted zone. The hydrometric data are very useful in preliminary impact assessments which are informing the engineering design for the site to ensure that suitable methods and mitigation measures are proposed. For example, wet working below the water table would remove the need for active dewatering of the aquifer, reducing the potential impact.
With 100 people relying on the aquifer at Straitgate for their drinking water, we remain dumbfounded that "wet working below the water table" is still being considered.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Fracking and sand

Some companies in the minerals industry will be rubbing their hands at the prospect of fracking in the UK, if the US is anything to go by. Much has been said about the environmental damage of fracking, its impact on groundwater, its impact on the climate; less has been said about the silica sand - frac sand - suspended in the toxic concoction of chemicals pumped underground, needed to prop the fractures open - "a single fracked well can require 10,000 tons of industrial silica sand”. This BGS presentation maps the UK silica sand deposits.

If the UK is to embrace fracking, it must be ready to embrace an increase in silica sand quarrying, and the carcinogenic silica dust that goes with it.

Who wanted to see the suspension of the Aggregates Levy exemption, and why?

The Aggregates Levy was intended to promote the use of exempted waste material that would otherwise be dumped - such as china clay secondary aggregates from Devon and Cornwall. Exemptions to the Levy have now been suspended pending an EU investigation; from 1 April 2014, the use of waste aggregates has been disadvantaged by £2 per tonne.

Who’s behind all this? Click here to see just how busy the British Aggregates Association - a Lanark-based trade body apparently representing independent quarry operators - has been over the years in its campaign against the Levy. Robert Durward, the face behind BAA, has "worked hard for almost 12 years to have the Aggregates Levy properly investigated". Why is he so against the Levy? Well, Mr Durward is also the face behind Lanark-based Cloburn Quarry. Read this article and all will become clear:
Eight aggregates companies in Scotland have been issued with summary warrants ordering them to meet the taxman’s claims for unpaid aggregates levies.
Last year, Cloburn Quarry petitioned the Scottish Courts and sought a Judicial Review of HMRC's decision to obtain a summary warrant for unpaid taxes; the courts refused the motion. It’s not just the multinationals who try to avoid paying their UK taxes.

It’s a simple matter of common sense that waste material should be used before digging up any more greenfield quarries. Tell the Government!

Standing Advice for Ancient Woodland and Veteran Trees

Natural England and the Forestry Commission have new planning advice on ancient woodland:
It provides advice which local planning authorities are advised to use in determining planning applications on or affecting ancient woodland and veteran trees. When consulted on proposals, Natural England and the Forestry Commission will refer planning authorities to this advice
Natural England uses the advice to remind us that:
Ancient woodland is an irreplaceable resource of great importance for its wildlife, soils, recreation, cultural value, history and the contribution it makes to our diverse landscapes. It is a scarce resource, covering only 3% of England’s land area. Veteran trees can be hundreds of years old, provide habitat for many different species and are a part of our landscape and cultural heritage. Local authorities have a vital role in ensuring the protection and conservation of ancient woodland and veteran trees, in particular through the planning system
Some of the effects on ancient woodland from development on adjacent land that must be considered:
Increased exposure to pollutants from the surrounding area
Increased deposition of dust, particularly from quarries, resulting in physical and/or chemical effects
Impacts on local hydrology through drainage or water table levels changing
Ancient woodland at Cadhay Bog near Ottery St Mary, where wetland habitat is threatened by quarrying