Tuesday, 30 October 2018

We’re killing our planet

The WWF has declared a state of emergency. Its Living Planet Report 2018 warns:
On average, we’ve seen an astonishing 60% decline in the size of populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians in just over 40 years
Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF International:
We can no longer ignore the impact of current unsustainable production models and wasteful lifestyles.
Tanya Steele, chief executive of the WWF:
We are the first generation to know we are destroying our planet and the last that can do anything about it.
The collapse of global wildlife populations is a warning sign that nature is dying.

If we continue to produce, consume and power our lives the way we do right now, forests, oceans and weather systems will be overwhelmed and collapse. Unsustainable agriculture, fisheries, infrastructure projects, mining and energy are leading to unprecedented biodiversity loss and habitat degradation, overexploitation, pollution and climate change. While their impacts are increasingly evident in the natural world, the consequences on people and businesses are real too.
Conserving forests, the ocean and wildlife is in everyone’s interest for sustainability and our own prosperity. That’s why now is the time for businesses, governments, institutions and civil society to work together to halt climate change and the devastation of nature.
Our civilisation finds itself at a crossroads. The equation is a simple one: we will not build a stable, prosperous and equitable future for humanity on a degraded planet.

‘End corporate greed and reduce precarious work, unions tell LafargeHolcim’

IndustriALL Global Union represents 50 million workers in 140 countries. Last week, the union issued this press release:
Around 60 representatives of the World Union Council from 26 countries came to Houffalize, Belgium on 22 to 24 October to discuss problems faced by workers and unions at multinational cement and construction materials company, LafargeHolcim.
The participants had a detailed exchange over challenges existing at national and international levels at LafargeHolcim, and expressed serious concerns at a lack of genuine social dialogue with the company after the changes in leadership in 2017 and 2018.
Trade union relations with LafargeHolcim went downhill at the end of 2017, when the new CEO reneged on a Memorandum of Understanding to sign a global framework agreement with IndustriALL Global Union and Building and Woodworkers International.
Meanwhile, rampant use of precarious work, namely outsourcing of up to 80 per cent in some sites, poses an enormous threat to workers’ rights and working conditions. LafargeHolcim proceeds with its policy of a shrinking business for the sake of increasing dividends paid to shareholders at the expense of workers creating all the company's wealth. Contract workers at LafargeHolcim are less qualified, have no access to training and promotion, and are not properly trained on health and safety. Consequently, three out of four victims of reported fatal accidents at work are contract workers.
The World Union Council issued a statement demanding that LafargeHolcim ends corporate greed and drastically reduces precarious work.
LafargeHolcim is the parent company of Aggregate Industries. The use of contract workers is prevalent at AI too. In 2017, we posted about AI’s modus operandi:
Many will be surprised to learn that it wouldn’t be Aggregate Industries' personnel rolling up their sleeves and quarrying Straitgate Farm. According to the company:
Contractors would haul any material off site.
Contractors would be engaged for soil stripping, earthworks and restoration.
And contractors are expected to be brought in to extract any sand and gravel.

LafargeHolcim cuts earnings outlook

LafargeHolcim has warned of challenging market conditions and has revised down its guidance for 2018 earnings, citing cost inflation pressures. LafargeHolcim's CEO told journalists:
We have very steep cost inflation, one of the steepest I have seen for many years.
LafargeHolcim’s share price is down more than 25% compared with a year ago. This follows a profits warning from from HeidelbergCement and comes at a time when the cement industry is feeling the chill of climate change legislation.

10 years ago

On 30 October 2008, a hail storm hit Ottery St Mary; 160mm of rain fell in 3 hours, 55 properties flooded in Thorne Farm Way as torrents funnelled down Cadhay Bog stream.

The event hit national headlines. The scene was described as like "a mini Boscastle", as £5 million flood defence schemes were overwhelmed. As one resident put it:
Ottery is in the bottom of a big mixing bowl and the water has to come straight through the town to get to the River Otter.

According to the Met Office:
The floods reached 1.5m in places. Numerous calls were made to the emergency services. By 0500 Ottery was cut off and around 100 people had to be evacuated, some even had to be airlifted to safety.
There was substantial damage to roads, housing and to utilities networks.
It is estimated that the total cost of the clean-up and repairs cost about £1 million.
An Environment Agency photo of the River Otter and surrounding area shows the extent of the flooding:

Here are some other photographs; it was an event where roads became rivers, fields became canyons.

Is it any wonder, therefore, that people are nervous about Aggregate Industries' plans to site a quarry at Straitgate – on the top of a hill above a town that has a history of flooding: ... August 1997, September 1997, September 1998, October 2005, November 2005, October 2008, July 2012 ...

Particularly when AI and its consultants neglected to mention in its Flood Risk Assessment any of the flooding caused in 2008 by the four watercourses coming from Straitgate. As we previously posted:
Despite the relief scheme, despite visits from the Environment Secretary and MP, despite being on the EA's Historic Flood Map, the historic flooding section of its Flood Risk Assessment 'forgot' to mention it was a watercourse from Straitgate that flooded 55 properties in 2008. Funny that.

Friday, 26 October 2018

AI’s application will now stagger into its 5th year – 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019…

Aggregate Industries’ planning application for Straitgate Farm – the one that’s been in a lifeless zombie state for the last 12 months or so – will not now be determined before 2019.

The application has been dogged by delays, over and over and over again. It has now been delayed again. For those that have lost count – it’s the 6th time the current application has been delayed; posts on previous delays can be found here, here, here, here and here. Bear in mind, however, that we are now on AI’s second application in recent times for Straitgate, the first being lodged back in 2015. That was dogged by delays too, even after 3 years or more of preparatory work. And all this on top of the years of palaver over the Minerals Plan – and the delays caused by AI trying to show the site was deliverable.

Readers following this long and tortuous journey/farce/pantomime/comedy/travesty [select your preferred description or add your own] will surely think by now that AI must be utterly incompetent. Running planning applications for mineral extraction is a core part of AI’s business, but, based on the company’s performance with Straitgate, you wonder whether they'd have difficulty running a bath.

However, to say that AI must be some sort of Micky Mouse operation would be a grave injustice to cartoon characters. Because, whilst other operators win permissions for multi-million tonne quarries on unallocated sites, AI continues to mess around with this sub-million tonne site – a site where the company’s maximum water table model is wrong by up to 2.8m – a site where other predictions for groundwater levels have errors the height of houses – a site that would involve an unorthodox, untried, untested seasonal working scheme (the architect of which has now left the company) risking the drinking water supplies of more than 100 people – a site that would entail off-site processing some 23 miles away – a site that would require a polluting multi-million-mile haulage plan when, as the IPCC warns, we have just 12 years left to stem catastrophic climate change.

And all this from a company that has already chopped down much of its 'compensation' planting – because it was planted in the wrong place; all this from a company that has now put a stop to public scrutiny of groundwater data from the site – with the obvious implication that it now has something to hide; all this from a company that has a record of not adhering to water monitoring S106 agreements; all this from a company that over the years has had no problem supplying local people, the Environment Agency and DCC with a catalogue of fiction.

We could go on, but you get the idea.

Why has determination now been pushed into 2019? Back in July, AI agreed its fifth extension with DCC, extending the period for determination to 31 December 2018. The last DMC meeting of 2018 is scheduled for 28 November. The company has now missed this, given that the submission of any further information will require public consultation. The first DMC meeting of 2019 is 30 January.

Again, there’s little evidence that anything has progressed during this latest extension period. According to Cllr John Hart, in his letter to MP Sir Hugo Swire of 21 September 2018, DCC is still awaiting information on hydrogeology, flooding, working practices, ecology and a range of transport matters, including "the cattle crossing issue." Readers may remember that we first posted about Bovine movements in April 2017, having previously raised the problem in our response of 30 March 2017. This link gives the story to date. We warned of More delays to come, but AI has already had a staggering 18 months to resolve this matter. How much more time will it need?

Meanwhile, as AI personnel come and go, the Council continues to agree extension after extension to this zombie application, apparently giving no thought to the fact that "extensions of time should really be the exception", apparently giving no thought for the community and businesses stuck in limbo under the shadow of AI’s ridiculous and unsustainable plans.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

‘The battle to curb our appetite for concrete’

Earlier in the year, we posted 'New Exeter wonder invention to revolutionise building', about how researchers from the University of Exeter have developed a technique that incorporates graphene into concrete, "reducing the amount of materials required to make concrete by around 50% leading to a significant reduction of carbon emissions".

The extraction of sand and gravel and the production of cement have a huge environmental impact across the world. These are not just our words. According to this BBC article "The battle to curb our appetite for concrete":
We extract billions of tonnes of sand and gravel each year to make concrete for the building industry, and this is having an increasing environmental impact as beaches and river beds are stripped, warn campaigners.
Alongside this environmental damage, the building industry is also a major contributor to greenhouse gases - cement manufacturing alone accounts for 7% of global CO2 emissions.
Scientists are working to reduce the amount of raw materials used in the construction industry:
Bath University researchers say up to 10% of sand in concrete can be replaced by plastic without significantly affecting concrete's structural integrity - crucial in determining whether to use plastic in concrete for buildings.
"There's a serious issue with plastic waste. Anything we can do to address this and find alternatives to putting plastic in landfill is welcome," says Dr Richard Ball, of Bath University's architecture and civil engineering department.

3D printing could also help:
“We could cut up to 40% of the concrete we use, and that would have a huge impact on the sand we are using. There's no penalty for over-design, and so designers and engineers will understandably err on the side of safety," says Dr John Orr of Cambridge University's engineering department - in case those constructing the building are tempted to cut corners. One way of stopping this could be by 3D printing buildings, creating concrete shapes directly from an architect's design.

CPA downgrades UK construction forecasts

GROWTH for the UK’s construction sector next year has been downgraded amid signs Brexit uncertainty and ongoing delays in the delivery of major infrastructure projects continue to weigh on activity.  
The Construction Products Association’s Autumn Forecasts anticipate growth will remain flat in 2018, and rise by only 0.6% in 2019, a downward revision from its previous estimate of 2.3%.

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Hugo Swire MP holds meeting with Aggregate Industries

Following a meeting with local people in August – when concerns were raised over Aggregate Industries’ site access plans for Straitgate, specifically that a safer alternative put forward by residents and traffic consultants Vectos had been dismissed by AI out of hand – Sir Hugo Swire MP has today met with representatives from the company:

Friday, 19 October 2018

World’s first ‘fully recycled road’

Eurovia, part of Vinci – the company that now owns South West Highways – has recently completed a motorway renovation project in France using 100% recycled asphalt; in other words, "extracts from quarries were not used at any stage":
The bulk of the supply can be sourced from the milling of materials produced by the site, thereby partly or fully protecting natural resources and reducing both transport logistics and the site’s carbon footprint to a minimum, with a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Cement industry feels the chill of climate change legislation

This week, shares in LafargeHolcim – the owner of Aggregate Industries – sank to their lowest level in more than two years, battered by a profits warning from HeidelbergCement – another cement giant, and owner of Hanson UK.

Just a day earlier, news site Global Cement had reported: "European cement producers not joking about implications of climate change legislation".

The reason for the story? Three European cement plants have been earmarked for closure this week. Cementa, a subsidiary of HeidelbergCement, is considering closing its Degerhamn plant in Sweden due to increased environmental regulations; Cemex is planning to close two plants in Spain.

Fingers are pointing to cement producers facing increased costs from trends in the EU emissions trading system. The CO2 emissions allowance price hit a high of €24/tonne in September, the highest price in a decade.
No doubt the European cement producers have charts marking the viability of their plants against the CO2 price.
How many more plants in Europe are at risk to shut next?
The EU carbon price is expected to rise further:
Analysts at investment bank Berenberg said they now forecast a carbon price of 45 euros a tonne in 2019 and 65 euros a tonne in 2020…

AI has been ‘showcasing restoration work’ at Venn Ottery

In 1965, planning permission was granted to quarry Venn Ottery Common in the East Devon AONB.

Aggregate Industries has worked the quarry over the years, most intensively between 2011 and 2016. Previous posts on the subject can be found here.

In 2018, AI announced that it had finished putting back the pieces. That’s 53 years from start to finish – almost as long as Blue Peter, the children’s TV show, that turned 60 this week.

The company must be pleased with how the site has been restored; it’s now 'showcasing' the work.

Who can guess what the AI representative is telling the assembled audience?

Perhaps: ‘Here’s one we destroyed earlier’?

Photo: Aggregate Industries

Wales gets tough on coal

As the implications of the IPCC’s dramatic report on global warming reverberate around the globe, this week the BBC reported that "Future coal mining applications are set to be rejected as a matter of policy for the first time in Wales". Draft planning policy, due to be finalised by the Welsh Government by the end of the year, says:
Proposals for opencast, deep-mine development or colliery spoil disposal should not be permitted.
Should, in wholly exceptional circumstances, proposals be put forward they would clearly need to demonstrate why they are needed in the context of climate change emissions reductions targets and for reasons of national energy security.
Meanwhile, in England, a government decision to block plans for an opencast coal mine close to a Northumberland beach was being challenged in the High Court this week. Banks Mining wants to overturn the "irrational" decision made by Communities Secretary Sajid Javid in March. Lawyers representing Friends of the Earth and the Save Druridge campaign group were also in court.

Another London-quoted Australian mining outfit runs into trouble

After the problems in Devon with Wolf Minerals and its Drakelands Mine, another Australian mining outfit, operating in Europe and promising untold riches, showed signs of coming unstuck this week, with its ASX shares suspended after Reuters reported "Spain to block Berkeley uranium mine project":
The Spanish government has decided not to deliver the permits necessary to open the European Union’s only open-cast uranium mine near Salamanca, dealing a serious blow to Australian mining company Berkeley Energia’s plans.
The project was granted preliminary approval in early 2013 but has since faced local opposition.
"The government will wait for the ongoing proceedings to go through but it will say no," a government source said on condition of anonymity.
Spain’s energy and environment ministry declined to comment. The Nuclear Safety Council had no immediate comment.
A second source, directly involved in the proceedings, said Berkeley was "living in a parallel universe" when it said the mine would soon become a reality.
Local opposition? In June, it was reported that "Thousands protest against uranium mine in Spain":
Spanish media are reporting that between 3,000 and 5,000 people hailing from different cities in Spain, as well as from Portugal and France, rallied this weekend in Salamanca to express their rejection to a uranium mine being built in the Retortillo municipality.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Cutting hedges next to roads is a standard but necessary chore for any landowner…

... who wants to stay on the right side of Section 154 of the Highways Act 1980.

So why are the hedgerows around the perimeter of Straitgate Farm proving so difficult for Aggregate Industries to cut back – in the interests of road safety?

This, of course, is at a time when AI should be doing all it can to convince people that it really could be a good neighbour to the local community – if the company’s controversial quarry plans, and all the associated harmful impacts, were to be dumped all over them.

The area on the right of the lane pictured below is AI's responsibility. Only last year, an ash tree was lost after AI delayed dealing with known issues.

The perimeter hedges around Straitgate are AI's responsibility. They have not been maintained for many years and are in desperate need of attention. AI has repeatedly been warned, this year and previous years, that for safety reasons the hedges need cutting back. Visibility is currently obscured for those exiting Birdcage Lane onto Exeter Road, and elsewhere.

Despite the warnings, at the time of writing no action, or even indication of action, has been forthcoming.

Perhaps posting here will spur AI into taking responsibility? Because if AI can’t even keep a few hedges cut back, what hope is there for the myriad of other more complex and onerous mitigation conditions it would have to adhere to at Straitgate, if its damaging quarry plans were given the go-ahead?

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

There must be two Aggregate Industries

The Aggregate Industries that marks the occasion of Green GB Week by claiming:

And the Aggregate Industries that continues to plot a multi-million-mile haulage scheme across Devon, whilst elsewhere delivering pitiful progress on CO2 emissions and climate action.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Who would take on Drakelands?

With Wolf Minerals, the owner of Drakelands Mine near Plymouth, having ceased trading last week – after losing £100 million over the last three years – the Plymouth Herald reports that there were warning bells ringing at the doomed mine as early as March 2016. Auditors raised concerns that financial losses and cash outflows indicated:
... the existence of a material uncertainty that may cast significant doubt about the company and consolidated entity’s ability to continue as a going concern.
Some months later, despite such uncertainty and even though mine vibrations at Drakelands were a "living hell", DCC approved a planning application from Australian-based Wolf Minerals to extend operations to 2036, permitting permanent 24 hour operations seven days a week at the processing plant, after MD Russell Clarke made representations to the Development Management Committee.

It was good news for Wolf, but a few months later Mr Clarke stepped down from the top job, not tempted to move from his home in Australia. His successor, Richard Lucas, brought "18 years of financial experience" to the table, in return for a pay packet of £269,000 a year.

More funds were raised. Wolf’s last Annual Report was upbeat:
We look forward to a successful year ahead, with Wolf realising its potential as a significant tungsten producer in the western world.
Even as recently as July, Mr Lucas reported:
The June quarter operating performance regained momentum following the extreme cold weather in March, with several improving trends gathering strength and culminating in record monthly throughput in June. The additional volumes have provided a more stable operating environment which has driven tungsten recovery and product quality improvements.
In addition, the successful ore pre-processing trial results have encouraged the Company to accelerate an operating plan to enhance tungsten recovery and improve operating cashflows in the current strong tungsten market conditions, with the tungsten price reaching its highest level since 2014.
Shareholders, however, were not convinced, and were not willing to throw more money down the pan.

Now that Wolf Minerals has run out of money, and the restoration of a huge scar on the Devon landscape hangs in the balance, the question is: will any other mining company have the wherewithal to take on Drakelands and continue to run it as a going concern?

Mining analysts Martin Potts and John Meyer, speaking to the Plymouth Herald, made it clear that any white knight would need deep pockets:
The analysts said a failure to hit targets on how much tungsten was produced was key. But while Mr Potts said this was due to failures at the processing plant, Mr Meyer thought it was because poor quality ore was being mined.
Mr Potts stressed that Drakelands mine had a target to recover 65 per cent of tungsten from the ore it dug up. The firm never got near this figure, its best quarterly result being 56.6 per cent, and most of its recovery rates were hovering around the 30 per cent to 40 per cent range. Also, the plant was designed to handle three million tonnes of ore, but production had only crept up to the two million tonne mark, meaning not enough raw ore was coming out of the ground. Mr Potts said it was clear that targets were not being hit and said: “The plant does not work.” He said that saving the mine was therefore not merely a matter of new ownership and re-financing, but serious capital investment too. He said it would need a “complete re-think” by new owners on how to make the processing operation work. “They would need to do a lot of test work before they restarted it,” Mr Potts said.
Mr Meyer put the problems down to the grade of ore being mined. He said the company had begun by digging up the finer ore, at the surface of the opencast pit. While this is easier to reach, it is of a lower quality and doesn’t produce as much tungsten. “We think it’s more about the pit than the plant,” he said. “The recovery rates have been very low,” he said. “You should get recovery rates of 60 per cent but they have been getting only half of that.

Gosh! Another race cancelled at Silverstone

The embarrassment continues for Aggregate Industries and its "racing circuit experts", after another race was cancelled at Silverstone today. Readers will be all too aware that AI resurfaced this track earlier in the year. Since then it has caused nothing but problems. Another Twitter storm now awaits @AggregateUK social media handlers. Here's a tweet from Mat Oxley – the journalist AI gagged:

Friday, 12 October 2018

DCC has asked AI to revise Straitgate plans to reflect elevated groundwater levels

In July, despite recent groundwater levels that put Aggregate Industries’ quarry plans for Straitgate Farm underwater, the company told us that it would not be submitting revised plans "following discussion with the EA and DCC". The Environment Agency confirmed that revised plans would only be required "immediately before operation of the quarry begins". All DCC would say was:
I have asked AI and the EA to discuss the groundwater situation and if the final working "grid" which the EA has asked them for affects the working area then amended plans will be required.
As this issue is currently being discussed between AI and the EA, the County Council would not wish to commit to anything until its resolved. If the final methodology affects the mining area then amended plans would be required but if not (and this is what the EA and AI are currently discussing) then there would be no requirement for additional plans.
It is utterly ridiculous that this sort of thing – a fundamental part of any quarry design – should not be resolved BEFORE determination, when the drinking water supplies of more than 100 people are at stake.
We posted It should be really simple. So why isn’t it? pointing to the fact that the Environmental Statement "must include at least the information reasonably required to assess the likely significant environmental effects of the development" and wondering:
Why would the EA and DCC not want to have up-to-date and correct information in the public domain before this planning application is determined?
MP Sir Hugo Swire wrote to the Chief Executive of the EA on the issue. We have now received a copy of the EA's reply. The stance of the agency has not changed. Fortunately, however:
Devon County Council have written to Aggregate Industries requesting them to submit revised plans showing the extent of the working area, taking into account the elevated groundwater levels recorded in March and April 2018, prior to determining the planning application. The purpose of this is to establish the extent of the working area. This meets the Straitgate Action Group’s request for this to be provided pre-determination.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

If AI’s record is an example of corporate action on climate change, we’re all screwed

This week, the IPCC warned that we have only 12 years left to stem catastrophic climate change, that "every extra bit of warming matters", that "global emissions of CO2 need to decline by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030", that "no-one can opt out anymore", that we need "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society", that "the next few years are probably the most important in our history"; as the co-chair of the IPCC working group put it:
It certainly mobilised Aggregate Industries into action; the next day the company tweeted an infographic with its CO2 figures, and crowed:

But who knows what’s going on at AI? Last year, the company initially declared that total CO2 emissions in 2016 amounted to 17.88 kgCO2e/tonne:

It was a quantum leap from 2015, with emission figures from two Lafarge Cement plants now included.

But AI has since revised that figure, and is now saying that emissions in 2016 were in fact almost double what was originally reported, at 31.68 kgCO2e/tonne. Figures in 2017 are not much better either:

When you consider that production at AI amounts to some 42 million tonnes of material each year, which includes over 1.4 million tonnes of cement, we’re talking big numbers and big discrepancies; 31.68 kgCO2e/tonne equates annually to 1.3 million tonnes of CO2.

Over the years, as we've posted, AI has spouted a lot of nonsense about its efforts on climate change:
In 2006: In a watershed year which saw the publication of two significant reports on climate change and its effects on the economy and the environment, we have a clear message: it’s happening and we have to take action now.
In 2008: We continue to work towards our 2012 target of 20% reduction per tonne of production from the 2008 verified baseline as detailed in this report.
In 2011: carbon emissions [have] steadily increased to 11.04 Kg CO2 per tonne in 2011.
In 2012: By 2016 we will reduce process carbon emissions by 20% on 2012 levels in absolute terms.
In 2015: Absolute process carbon emissions continue to rise and are 20% above the 2012 baseline.
If AI has made any efforts – in this existential threat to humanity – they have obviously failed:

So what’s AI going to do? Will it fundamentally change the way it operates – as the IPCC says we all have to – or will the company just go on producing empty promises and pretty graphics, whilst merrily adding to our climate catastrophe?

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Drakelands Mine owner ceases trading and appoints administrators

In September 2015, the Hemerdon Tungsten and Tin Project in Devon was officially opened:
... attended by over 200 local and international guests and dignitaries, including representatives from the local community, UK Government, regulators, customers and shareholders, all of whom have played key roles in the successful delivery of the Project.
It was the first new metal mine in Great Britain for 45 years. DCC Leader Cllr John Hart said:
There is a long heritage of mining and quarrying in this part of the county and to mine one of the world's largest tungsten deposits will have a positive impact on the local and regional economy, which is good for jobs and the prosperity of Devon. It has taken some time for this project to come to fruition and the County Council has worked closely with Wolf Minerals to ensure the infrastructure and modern environmental controls required for the project are in place.
Even Aggregate Industries took a slice of the pie, benefitting from the construction of a new link road which took 6 months to build. But, as always, it was local residents who suffered the brunt of this new mine – particularly the "horrendous invasive unacceptable" impact of blasting and low frequency noise.

In the end, just three years on from all the hubris and fanfare, and as we posted only yesterday, all was not financially well with the owner Wolf Minerals. Today, workers have been sent home, police have been called on site, and the company has suspended its shares, announcing:
The Company has been unable to satisfactorily conclude its discussions with its key financial stakeholders and therefore is not in a position to meet its short term working capital requirements in order to continue operations at its Drakelands open pit mine. Consequently, the Company's wholly owned subsidiary, Wolf Minerals (UK) Limited, has ceased trading effective immediately.
Over £100 million has been poured into this failing venture and ever-expanding scar on the edge of Dartmoor. It was all to no avail; as one commentator remarked: "the economics of production at Hemerdon never really stacked up... rescue finance and bridging loans [were] needed, all in the hope that tin and tungsten prices would rise high enough to cover the embarrassment of Hemerdon’s complex geology and tricky processing."

But mining can be a financially precarious business. Those thinking of backing such ventures would do well to heed Mark Twain’s definition of a mine: "A hole in the ground with a liar at the top".

EDIT 11.10.18: Questions have been raised about the issue of restoring the site. In 2016, DCC stated:
6.135 There is already in existence a restoration bond with Wolf Minerals which was required as a part of the original legal agreement associated with the 1986 planning permission. Whilst the NPPF states that such bonds are only required in exceptional circumstances, the large scale nature of the development combined with the volatile markets in metal prices indicated that the public interest should be protected. The value of the bond was calculated by the Mineral Valuer in 2014 to be in the region of £15 million and whilst it was not necessary to do so until the project was at its maximum “exposure” calculated to be years 5-7 of the project, the operator has already posted the full amount into an Escrow Account to ensure that the finance remains available for this purpose.
DevonLive, on the other hand, reports:
The Environment Agency is to meet with bosses from Australian-owned Wolf Minerals (UK) Ltd to discuss what will become of the 850m by 450m wide opencast Drakelands pit, and who will pay for its eventual restoration to greenery.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

More trouble at Drakelands

You’d be forgiven for thinking – judging by the numbers – that this was a graph of the ever-depleting recoverable sand and gravel resource at Straitgate Farm: the one that started at 20 million tonnes in the 60s, and is now less than 5% of that number.

But it’s not. It’s a graph showing the economic wellbeing of a mining operation in Devon that was given the go-ahead by DCC a few years ago, specifically Wolf Minerals and its Drakelands open-cast tungsten mine just outside Plymouth, near Sparkwell and Hemerdon. We posted about this in July:
…as the share price of Wolf Minerals LSE:WLFE sank ever closer to zero, and the scar blighting Dartmoor looms ever larger, reality caught up with the company as it announced "a trading halt in its shares [on ASX] pending an announcement on its financing arrangements." In 2017, the company incurred a net loss after tax of A$74,536,641, or about £42m.
Earlier this month, Wolf had announced that fresh funds were required "to ensure that the company has sufficient working capital to meet its short-term requirements to continue as a going concern."
Residents, who have had to endure the "horrendous invasive unacceptable" impact of blasting and low frequency noise will no doubt be watching events closely – to see how much more money will be poured into this very big hole.
Wolf’s financial position is still precarious, with their shares down more than 25% at the time of writing, after this news:
As announced on 30 July 2018, the Company has been working with its key financial stakeholders to develop longer term funding solutions required to provide the Company with capital prior to the expiry of the standstill period on 28 October 2018, to progress further production improvements.
The Company's discussions with those stakeholders are ongoing and the Company expects to conclude those discussions this week, following which a further announcement will be made. However, should the Company not be able to satisfactorily conclude its discussions with those stakeholders within the next two days, it will not be in a position to meet its short term working capital requirements after that point in time.
There are ramifications for other companies, particularly Hargreaves Services who has warned:
... the Board estimates that the Group has a current net exposure of approximately £5m to Wolf comprising trade debt and WIP balances, some or all of which may prove to be irrecoverable were Wolf to be unable to continue trading. Redundancy and other associated costs may also result in a further non-recurring charge of up to £3m against Group profits in the current financial year. Additionally, if Wolf ceases to trade, this could reduce the Group's revenue in the balance of the current financial year by approximately £15m and its profit before tax by a further £1m.

Monday, 8 October 2018

IPCC: “The next few years are probably the most important in our history”

The Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC has been approved by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. According to the BBC, with its revised attitude to climate change reporting:
Their dramatic report on keeping that rise under 1.5 degrees C states that the world is now completely off track, heading instead towards 3C.
Staying below 1.5C will require "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society."
"No-one can opt out anymore," said Dr Debra Roberts, who's a co-chair of the IPCC. "We all have to fundamentally change the way we live our lives; we can't remain remote from the problem anymore."
Five steps to 1.5:
  • Global emissions of CO2 need to decline by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030. 
  • Renewables are estimated to provide up to 85% of global electricity by 2050. 
  • Coal is expected to reduce to close to zero.
  • Up to 7 million sq km of land will be needed for energy crops (a bit less than the size of Australia). 
  • Global net zero emissions by 2050.
The IPCC press release can be found here. Dr Debra Roberts warns:
This report gives policymakers and practitioners the information they need to make decisions that tackle climate change while considering local context and people’s needs. The next few years are probably the most important in our history.

The message is clear. We will all have to make fundamental changes - even you, Aggregate Industries.

AI has been failing to control dust emissions

Aggregate Industries is confident it can control the dust arising from any quarry operation at Straitgate:
The potential for fugitive dust emissions from the proposed excavation of sand and gravel at Straitgate Farm is minimal...
It’s a pretty meaningless statement; satisfying a tick-box exercise, using an off-the-shelf report, the bulk of which has been wheeled out countless times before.

But for all the rhetoric, AI has been failing to control dust emissions from its quarries this summer, not just at its Bardon Hill "super quarry" in Leicestershire, but also at Westleigh Quarry in Devon.

Westleigh is currently the subject of a planning application to vary the approved working scheme to extract an additional 600,000 tonnes; we posted about this in May, how:
Objections to application DCC/4007/2017 to vary the working scheme at Westleigh Quarry tell a story of dust inside and outside homes, of noise, of blasting vibration, of HGV problems on unsuitable roads, of damage to roads going un-repaired, of rules continuously being broken, of a complaints system that doesn't work, even of a "Section 106 condition from the 1997 Application [that] remains unfulfilled".
Since then, AI’s dust problems at Westleigh have got worse. That’s embarrassing for AI, at a time when the company is trying to win permission for another 600,000 tonnes. AI’s dust consultants were wheeled in again, but they couldn’t use an off-the-shelf response this time, reckoning that:
As you are aware, after conclusion of the monitoring, complaints were received regarding high levels of dust deposition at residential properties in Westleigh Village. This corresponded with the extensive period of hot and dry weather combined with northerly winds creating uncharacteristic conditions for this time of year. It has been acknowledged that fugitive emissions from the quarry were responsible and this resulted in action being taken by the quarry to implement additional dust mitigation measures.
Bravo. But no apology, of course, for the health impact on local residents.

Since then, Public Health England has responded to new information provided for the application:
We note that due to the increasing number of dust complaints relating to the quarry since May 2018, the applicant has undertaken further dust monitoring, which remains ongoing. In addition, improved dust control measures have been incorporated into the site management plans to mitigate fugitive emissions of dust off-site.
We recommend that the Local Authority should ensure that the enhanced dust control measures are adequate prior to issuing any planning permission.

Even aggregate companies are pointing fingers at each other over planning failures

We’ve often posted about local authorities having trouble enforcing planning conditions.

Now, Lagan Asphalt Group, based in the Republic of Ireland, and recently acquired by Breedon Group – a growing UK aggregates business and competitor to Aggregate Industries – has claimed in the High Court that a rival is operating a plant without the required air emission and planning approvals. There is an ulterior motive – the rival happens to be competing for the same project:
The urgency of the matter was that the tender for the road project is about to be awarded, he said. Asked by the judge if the local authorities had done nothing in relation to the alleged licence and approval matters, Mr Fitzsimons said that was the case and that was why his client took legal proceedings.

AI’s Silverstone debacle ongoing

Readers may be bored sick of this subject (or have developed a new interest in motor sport??), but Aggregate Industries’ asphalt at Silverstone is still the subject of rumblings.

Whilst AI touts the benefits of different coloured asphalts elsewhere (and yes, many will argue that "black asphalt [is] no longer always sufficient to meet the brief"), journalists are still following the Silverstone story, albeit wary of AI’s previous legal threats:
The future of the British GP is in doubt after Dorna’s top boss confirmed to MCN that, following last month’s rain-lashed debacle, Silverstone is not currently licensed to hold a MotoGP race and needs to make significant changes to regain FIM homologation for 2019.
Silverstone is apparently working closely with AI to understand what went wrong; its boss reckons:
I don’t think it’ll go to court. I’m in daily contact with them and they just want it to be right.
Others are not so sure:
… there could still be a fly in the ointment if legal action does ensue. Perennially struggling with finances, it’s unlikely that Silverstone can afford another full resurfacing for the second time in 12 months out of their own pocket without support from the contractor.
The cost of a new track is reputed to be 6-7 million euros.

Meanwhile, it rained again at Silverstone over the weekend, "nothing torrential or anything", and another race was cancelled.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Leader of DCC replies to MP Hugo Swire

Last month we posted that Sir Hugo Swire, following a meeting with local people:
... has written to Cllr John Hart, Leader of DCC, pointing out that a safer access proposal has been put forward to DCC by Vectos, with the backing of local people, but that no response has yet been elicited, and that "road safety and the transport of children is causing me real concern" – the access point for AI’s 44-tonne HGVs is used as a school bus stop for pupils from King's and Colyton
His letter to Cllr Hart was clear:
They are very much concerned about the access onto the B3174 and some constituents have commissioned Vectos to come up with an alternative proposal… Can I ask you to investigate this and let me know what is happening here?
We had posted about the alternative proposal from Vectos back in March – Revised junction plan put forward by Group eliminates pedestrian & HGV conflict:

According to Vectos, following a subsequent meeting with DCC’s highways officer last month:
DCC are currently waiting for a Transport Assessment from the new consultant working for the applicant but he confirmed that one of the possibilities that the consultant would be looking at was a new access proposal on Exeter Road (west of Birdcage Lane/Toadpit Lane) – which is very encouraging.
But readers will see that, whilst Cllr Hart’s reply does address agricultural movements and a number of other transport issues, his letter fails to address the central thrust of Sir Hugo Swire's letter – the alternative access proposal:

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

AI puts a stop to public scrutiny of groundwater data for Straitgate application

Six times as popular in the business press as it was in 2002; about one in 40 press releases claim it. It’s taking over "honesty" and "integrity," maybe because you can claim transparency without any suggestion you’re doing something that improves anyone’s life.
It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that Aggregate Industries claims:
And why wouldn’t it? Any company which has the capacity to harm the quality of life of the communities in which it operates, needs to at least claim it’s acting in a transparent manner, if it’s to secure trust, legitimacy and a social licence to operate – because, as anyone who taps into Google will find, "transparency is the currency of trust", "transparency breeds legitimacy", etc.

In 2012, AI told local people in East Devon it was going to be 'open and transparent' in its plans to quarry Straitgate Farm; 'we have nothing to hide' – glasnost had arrived!

In order to prove this, the company was keen to share groundwater monitoring data with us, from across Straitgate and the surrounding area, in an effort to demonstrate everything was going to be done above board, that people’s drinking water was safe. And to give AI credit, for the last 5 years the company has indeed shared groundwater levels with us from boreholes across the site; daily levels from each borehole, supplied quarterly; boreholes that now total 18 in number; data not routinely seen by either the Environment Agency or DCC.

Of course, it’s easier to stomach openness and transparency when things are going to plan. It’s more difficult when they’re not. Indeed, the last set of data undermined predictions of the maximum winter water table made by AI’s consultants – predictions AI had used as the base of the quarry, predictions AI had used to determine the infiltration zones to mitigate for flooding; we posted about all this in June:

But it wasn’t just the recent data:

The proposed quarry base – the maximum winter water table – will have to be re-guesstimated to a higher level, to reflect higher groundwater levels in four locations; and the infiltration zones will have to be moved to reflect the fact that groundwater in these areas is recorded less than 0.5m below ground level. Less material will therefore be available. We have argued that plans should be redrawn before determination; the EA has bizarrely argued that afterwards is fine, "before operation of the quarry begins".

It’s all a giant embarrassing mess, but transparency has at least helped get closer to the truth. Where would we have been now without it?

But it’s all getting a bit much for AI; the company has had enough of openness and transparency. Last week, it was made clear that full access to the borehole data will no longer be forthcoming, and the data will therefore no longer be open to public scrutiny.

The implication, of course, is that the company now has something to hide.

We have not seen groundwater levels beyond 26 April of this year – except for one borehole. On that date, water levels in a number of other boreholes were at very high levels. Did they go higher? The one borehole, for which we do still have entitlement to the data, recorded its seasonal maximum after 26 April.

Denying public scrutiny of simple groundwater levels will obviously not inspire confidence from those households reliant on the area for their drinking water. Who’s to know whether groundwater levels go even higher this year, next year, or the year after?

We obviously can’t trust AI to flag up water problems in the future, given the company has had so many problems complying with a Section 106 to disclose groundwater levels at nearby Blackhill – where reports that were meant to be submitted annually were years late or non-existent.

And we can’t trust AI’s consultants – who bandy around meaningless words like confidence and conservatism and then get it all so monumentally wrong. Who’s going to trust them when they’ve been so reluctant to talk about tolerances: the error in +/- m to which the maximum water table has been guesstimated. Readers will remember that expert hydrogeologist Dr Rutter warned that at Straitgate:
The steep hydraulic gradient combined with limited monitoring, in my opinion, is likely to result in errors in the actual depth to maximum groundwater across the site.
We asked AI to comment on why it now thinks that the data, for groundwater supplying drinking water to over 100 people, is best kept beyond public scrutiny. It was a chance for AI to allay local concerns. It was a chance to explain why it’s best that the community is kept in the dark before the application is determined. Here is the company's response:
The change in the sharing of data has come about following a review of our practice in this area and is now in-line with company policy.
Subject to the determination by DCC of the current planning application then it is likely, in the event of planning permission being granted, that there will be a planning condition / s106 obligation which requires AIUK to agree a Water Monitoring Plan (WMP). The WMP will detail a monitoring schedule to ensure the protection of water assets including private water supplies and a requirement to produce an annual Hydrometric Report. This Report will be submitted to DCC and the EA and will contain all the borehole monitoring data, so at this time it will be available for public scrutiny.
So, plainly not conducting business in a transparent manner, and yes, that's right, the same sort of Report we referred to above, the ones that AI submitted years late or not at all. Brilliant. That's bound to put people's minds at rest.

So the last remnant of transparency with this planning application has been thrown out the window. And with it, any trust that things will be done properly. And this is all about trust – when people’s drinking water supplies are at risk. As things stand, local people are looking at a quarry base to be decided after determination, behind closed doors, using groundwater levels that the public can’t be trusted to see before determination; anybody smell that stitch-up again?