Monday, 21 December 2015

As this blog enters its 5th year…

AI's planning applications for East Devon run on and on, careering from problem to problem, riddled with inaccuracies, inconsistencies, fabrications and falsehoods. Huge questions still have to be answered before they go anywhere near the Development Management Committee. Here are just a few:

The question of what happens when all of the unsaturated material above the maximum water table is removed, and millions of gallons of groundwater storage capacity is permanently lost on top of a hill above flood-prone communities, at a time when flooding events are happening with increasing frequency and intensity; DCC has already requested that, "due to the nature of the flood risk downstream, betterment should be achieved".

The question of what protection is left for people’s water supplies, when AI proposes to quarry right down to, and remove all the sand and gravel above, the maximum groundwater level across the whole site. The question of the proposed Section 106 and who decides if the water is lost or polluted, and who picks up the tab if the cause is disputed; the question of the 60% of groundwater users not intended to be covered at all. The question of why AI thinks it’s acceptable to leave just 1m of soil post-restoration between the surface and maximum water table as protection against future pollution; at nearby Town Farm, where far fewer water users were at risk, Hanson made it clear that "Post restoration (including the placement of soils) the resulting ground surface will be at least 2m above the water table".

The question of soil storage, after AI conceded it has no rights to use 3rd party land for this purpose; the question therefore of revised plans and new boundaries; the question of 340,000m3 of top soil and overburden - enough to take out another 42 acres of farmland if piled 2m high.

The question of continued processing at Blackhill, when AI can’t demonstrate the "exceptional circumstances" required by the NPPF for continued working in an AONB.

The question of importing a million tonnes of nitrate-rich soils from a dairy farm into a nitrate-sensitive wildlife site of European importance.

The question of the absent tree planting and dormouse mitigation, when 2km of their ancient hedgerow habitat is proposed to be grubbed up; NPPF: "...local planning authorities should aim to conserve and enhance biodiversity by applying the following principles: if significant harm resulting from a development cannot be avoided (through locating on an alternative site with less harmful impacts), adequately mitigated, or, as a last resort, compensated for, then planning permission should be refused".

The question of site access. AI’s plans rely on the use of 3rd party land - outlined below in yellow. Having conceded it has no rights for soil and overburden storage, staff facilities, wheel washes or footpaths on this 3rd party land, AI can't produce the relevant lease to prove it has rights of access either. AI has now confirmed in writing that "the Company would need to revise the quarry development proposals".

AI must surely rue the day it came across Straitgate Farm. 2016 will be interesting - one way or another.

We wish readers a Happy Christmas and Peaceful New Year.

It was everybody else’s fault

Minutes of the 'seven suits meeting' have now been produced. Aggregate Industries, in wanting the meeting to be confidential, was asked to produce the minutes itself to ensure they did not contain "issues that the Company wished to remain confidential". As it turned out, despite the number of AI delegates, the author was not actually present at the meeting, and the model outlined in 3.4 and 3.5 was not actually the one described at the meeting - according to subsequent conversations we’ve had with the EA and DCC.

Regarding the matter of the 1m standoff above the maximum recorded water table, AI says it was the "the presentation of information [in its planning application] that had been misinterpreted" by statutory consultees: the Environment Agency, Natural England, and the Mineral Planning Authority.

But to put it down to misinterpretation by others is disingenuous in the extreme. If AI had wanted people to understand that it was proposing to leave zero metres of sand and gravel above the maximum recorded water table, it only had to use clear unambiguous language to that effect from the start, or in further communications, or in its Regulation 22 response - see post below. Furthermore, nowhere did AI’s planning application make reference to a summer and winter working regime; nowhere was there an indication of extraction phasing that might accommodate this. There was, however, clear unambiguous language from Amec, AI’s consultants, in its hydrogeology report. Here’s one example from several:
The removal of the unsaturated zone down to a level of 1 m above that defined by the maximum winter water level will mean that any change in the recharge/runoff split…
One can only surmise, therefore, that Amec’s conclusions on the impact of AI’s proposal were on that basis. If the standoff proposed above the maximum winter water table is now 0m, Amec should be asked whether it stands by those previous conclusions or whether the impacts need to be reassessed.

However, the simple fact of the matter is that AI did not want to make it clear that it intended to leave 0m of sand and gravel unquarried above the maximum water table, or that post-restoration it intended there to be just 1m of soil above the maximum water table - 30cm of topsoils and 70cm of subsoils - to protect water drinkers from nitrates or other contaminants that might be produced from any future farming or alternative land-use. When Hanson proposed to quarry Town Farm at Burlescombe - same geology, fewer private water supplies - it did make it perfectly clear that "Post restoration (including the placement of soils) the resulting ground surface will be at least 2m above the water table1.4.8 because "the unsaturated zone above the water table affords protection of the aquifer from surface pollution, allowing adsorption, attenuation and degradation of contaminants prior to reaching the water table" C3.1.

An expert's advice on the importance of leaving 1m of sand and gravel unquarried above the maximum water table is also perfectly clear and needs repeating:
Future land uses, after site closure, will be limited by the available unsaturated zone thickness. 3.8
Post-restoration, due to the decreased depth to groundwater and more limited ability of the ground to attenuate contaminants, it is appropriate to impose restrictions on land use. Although nitrate and bacteria, as might result from intensive agriculture, are not contaminants of concern for the quarry and cleanfill operation, these may pose a risk to groundwater quality for downgradient users if the post-rehabilitation land use causes discharges of these contaminants (including diffuse discharges). 6.1(g)
Through quarrying the exposure pathway for any contaminants has been modified. This means that there may be rapid access to the groundwater system for any contaminants, including pathogens. 6.2
When soil is first reinstated, its ability to attenuate contaminants will be lower than for a well-established soil. In a well-developed soil, the top soil grades into the underlying gravels, allowing for further attenuation of nutrients and pathogens. The soil condition would improve with time, but depends on soil management practices. 6.5
Compound all this with the fact that AI doesn’t know with any degree of certainty where the maximum water table actually is across the whole site - even if there were a piezometer in the centre of the site giving the height of groundwater during any quarrying operation - and AI’s whole scheme is patently reckless. If 1m is typically left unquarried above the maximum water table at other sites with sensitive groundwater receptors, it beggars belief that for Straitgate Farm - where the issue of water is so important, be it for flooding, wetland habitats in ancient woodland, airport safeguarding or drinking supplies for large numbers of people and livestock - anything less should even be a consideration.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

AI’s idea of a 1m standoff

From the start, Aggregate Industries has been persistently evasive about how much sand and gravel it intended to leave as an unquarried buffer above the maximum water table to safeguard private water supplies. Yesterday, at a meeting with a company representative, the truth became crystal clear - and the answer was none. AI wants to take it all. AI’s proposed base of quarry working is simply Amec's maximum groundwater level contours; put 0 metres of "Maintained depth over maximum groundwater" into the resource calculation below and out drops AI’s magical 1.2 million tonnes resource figure:

AI says "pretty much all of the extraction area would require the buffer backfilling as per AMEC modelling" with 1m of top soil and subsoils. How this could ever be restored to best and most versatile agricultural land again is anybody’s guess. How this fits in with the methodology of working half of the resource north to south, and the remainder going back from south to north, if extraction down to the maximum groundwater level is only during the drier summer months, is also anybody’s guess. Why AI didn’t want to come clean in its original application is perhaps clearer.

The truth has taken months to come out. Back in June we wrote that AI wants to quarry down to the water table - of the aquifer that supplies 106 people. We wrote to the Environment Agency, and on 9 July posted Clarification from the EA that said:
Aggregate Industries have proposed to stop quarrying a metre above the water-table. We expect DCC to make this a condition of any permission that is granted.
We said: "In which case, AI should now tell us the size of resource left at Straitgate - the size of the 'benefit' that should be weighed against the proposal's considerable harm. According to AI, the site contained "in the order of 1.2Mt of saleable sand and gravel" 3.8 with mineral extraction to the high groundwater level; a 1m depth of sand and gravel across a 25.6ha extraction area equates to about 0.5 million tonnes."

The same day, however, in email correspondence with DCC, AI mysteriously claimed:
a 1metre depth of unsaturated zone will be retained above the winter water table as per AMEC's technical note.
the calculation of the 1.2Mt reserve was modeled to a surface 1metre above the highest winter water table.
Calculations confirmed, however, that AI was overstating the saleable resource by at least 500,000 tonnes if 1m of unsaturated resource were to be retained. In its Regulation 22 request, DCC asked:
The applicant should demonstrate the methodology which will be used on site to ensure no working within the 1m standoff for the highest measured point of the groundwater in the Budleigh Salterton Pebblebeds - given the acknowledged variations across the site and the concern that there has been no piezometer installed at the centre of the site to monitor ground water levels at that location.
To which, all AI would say was:
The highest groundwater level across the site has been defined from historical data which includes two periods of exceptionally high rainfall which has resulted in particularly high water level conditions. Using this elevation surface to define the depth of the excavation, taking into account any standoff requirement, would therefore be conservative. 3.8
At the end of October, DCC warned AI that:
Given the importance of this point, to you as the proposed operator, and evidently to the MPA and the EA who were both of the understanding that you had agreed to this restriction. I am now asking you to clarify in writing whether you are intending to work to the proposed levels set out in the Amec technical Note to the Policy Team and the EA (and on which their recommendation was clearly based) or whether you wish for the MPA to consider your proposal as working to the highest measured level of the winter water table without the 1m standoff.
You will understand the importance of this point and the need for absolute clarity in your response as it has serious implications for the further progress of this application.
Hence the seven suits that subsequently turned up at the EA. Minutes from this meeting have yet to be published. Our understanding from the EA, however, is that they were not left with the impression that "pretty much all of the extraction area would require the buffer backfilling as per AMEC modelling". Next week*, infiltration tests will be performed at Straitgate at the EA’s request; a technical note will be produced, and another round of consultation will follow in due course. AI's next set of documents will obviously attract even more scrutiny from all concerned.

We’ve addressed the importance of leaving 1m of unquarried material above the maximum groundwater level. We’ve addressed the fact that in some places, operators are forced to leave 2m. We’ve addressed why at Town Farm, a quarry with the same geology but far fewer groundwater users, Hanson said:
The scheme proposes extraction within the Pebble Beds to 1m above the highest recorded water table level. C3.1
AI obviously thinks none of this applies to them. It looks as though its application for Straitgate will be decided on working "without the 1m standoff" - against the previous advice of the EA, against DCC’s draft Minerals Plan, against the advice of Amec, AI's own hydrogeologists. AI will have to convince the EA, planning officers, and members of the Development Management Committee of the merits of leaving nothing but a wing and a prayer to protect the water supplies of 106 people, 3 farms and their livestock, Grade I Cadhay’s mediaeval fishponds and tearooms that serve 2000 people a year.

*EDIT: Delayed until 2016

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Site access - AI looks at the alternatives

Surveyors contracted to Aggregate Industries were out today assessing site access onto the B3174 Exeter Road - the main road from Ottery St Mary to the Daisymount A30 junction. Five alternative site access points were surveyed; at least three were judged to have unacceptable visibility splays.

AI had been looking to transport material to Blackhill using access onto the Old A30 via Birdcage Lane; even this last week, an AI surveyor was out again working on this option. The fact that AI is now looking at the B3174 is perhaps because the company now recognises that the game is up over claiming it has access rights across 3rd party land onto the old A30, or perhaps because the company wants to answer Hugo Swire MP's request:
If planning is eventually granted then I do feel that DCC should explore alternative entry and exit points to mitigate the disruption that this development will cause.
Whatever the reason, the Google Street View of the B3174 may look peaceful, yet this straight fast road is normally anything but - as local people will attest. Laden 44-tonne HGVs turning onto this road and crawling up this long incline would surely be a recipe for trouble. The photograph below shows what happened the last time just one of AI’s vehicles left Birdcage Lane to go up the B3174; AI would want to put up to 200 HGV movements along this stretch every day.

After "three years of careful planning and consideration", AI's plans are still up in the air.

Friday, 4 December 2015

AI says it's time to #BackClimateAction

The Paris climate talks have started. Business leaders accept that we can’t keep doing things the same way. Businesses will have to change their ways; even Aggregate Industries will have to change its ways. 

A 1.2 million mile HGV proposal to haul material from Straitgate Farm to Blackhill on Woodbury Common is not changing your ways - it says business as usual. Transporting aggregate 23 miles from Hillhead to Blackhill for processing is not changing your ways - it also says business as usual.

AI's parent, LafargeHolcim, claims to be serious about climate - it's even produced a leaflet. Eric Olsen, CEO of LafargeHolcim, says:
We want to set new benchmarks for sustainability, not only for our sector, but for business more widely. To achieve this, our objectives, including those on CO2, must go beyond regular business towards the transformation required for the future low-carbon, sustainable society. This approach has been integral in our work building up to and during COP21, which is fully aligned with the ground-breaking international climate agreement which is sought from the event.

But a company can’t just produce leaflets, it must act. The CO2 polluting HGV haulage plans for Straitgate and Hillhead indicate that AI just doesn’t get it. AI has to do more than talk the talk.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Natural England issues an "Objection/Further information req'd" for Straitgate too

Aggregate Industries’ problems go from bad to worse. Further to Natural England's response in July, the agency has now responded to the company's Regulation 22 response with an "Objection/Further information required" for Straitgate Farm. 

Since AI's Regulation 22 response identified Blackhill as the only viable processing option, NE has advised DCC to assess whether the Straitgate Farm proposal will have a significant effect on a European designated site, raising again the issue of importing nitrate-rich soils from a dairy farm into the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths SAC and East Devon Heaths SPA. It has responded on a number of other issues too - the lack of a "thorough examination of potential alternative sites", the lack of a proper great crested newt survey and the lack of replacement habitat for dormice.

AI had made the claim that:
It has been demonstrated that processing at Rockbeare is not physically possible due to a lack of silt space and clean water storage, insufficient stocking and processing area and the presence of great crested newts in existing ponds. 8.37
Given… the absence of another suitable site for processing the mineral... it is considered that exceptional circumstances exist that should enable the LPA to permit the 5 year extension of the existing operation at Blackhill Quarry. 8.58
Natural England demolishes this argument:
The presence of Great Crested Newts at Rockbeare Quarry is cited as a constraint to the consideration of using Rockbeare Quarry as an alternative location for the processing of quarry materials from Straitgate Farm. Natural England advises that the potential exists for this to be addressed through European Protected Species licencing and that this avenue could be explored through consultation with our licensing team.
The applicant also does not appear to have explored the feasibility and costs of undertaking modifications to increase the capacity of water storage and silt settling lagoons at Rockbeare quarry. It is also noted in para 6.39 that concrete settling tanks were previously used at Hillhead quarry, however, there is no discussion as to whether a similar proposal at Rockbeare would be an option to increase capacity. Similarly there is no discussion around options to increase the depth of Beggars Roost or raise the height of the bund around Beggars Roost to increase its capacity.
The justification for using Blackhill Quarry to continue to process quarry materials appears to be based on the economic benefits to the Applicant of not moving heavy processing equipment that has been installed at Blackhill, rather than a thorough examination of potential alternative sites.
And on the issue of protected species in and around Straitgate:
We have not assessed this application and associated documents in detail for impacts on protected species, however, despite further information being provided through the Reg 22 response, there is still doubt over whether the Great Crested Newt survey has been completed in line with our standing advice.
We are also aware that changes identified in the Reg 22 response in relation to the tree and hedgerow planting proposed as mitigation for both landscaping purposes and replacement habitat for the dormouse population may affect the quality and quantity of planting that will be in place. Your Authority will need to be satisfied that the mitigation plan proposed by the Applicant is deliverable in the quantity and to the quality required and within the appropriate timescales to provide the necessary replacement habitat.