Monday 22 April 2024

Two months on – PZ2017/03 is STILL underwater

On 12 February this year, we posted Water level at borehole PZ2017/03 rises to GROUND LEVEL.

By 18 February, the situation was even worse:
Last week – more than two months on, and now with monitoring equipment finally installed – the top of the piezometer was still underwater:
The sand and gravel that Aggregate Industries wants at Straitgate Farm starts on average 2.3m below ground level. The company’s permission only allows quarrying above the maximum water table.

Clearly this is one area where extraction should not be taking place.

So, how close to this area could extraction be permitted? Aggregate Industries is in no position to say. As we previously posted
Piezometer PZ2017/03, at the NE corner of Phase 1 and SE corner of Phase 2, is obviously unable to provide any meaningful information on how far to the west of this point the maximum groundwater levels would allow sufficient depth for mineral extraction, given water levels here have reached ground level. 

Clearly, therefore, there need to be further boreholes drilled at the redrawn eastern boundary of the extraction area – to fulfil Condition 30, ie. so that there are piezometers at "each corner of each working sub-phase".

How do companies make themselves look green?

The is how Aggregate Industries does it – as any visitor to will see:

Of course, many companies face the same problem – what photo to put on your sustainability page, to make yourself look green? 

But what if your business is concrete – the most destructive material on earth? What to choose then? 

Aggregate Industries has chosen a photo of a green living wall. 

If only all buildings were made like this, you might think. Green walls
Remove air pollutants 
Reduce urban temperatures 
Reduce energy consumption 
Improve biodiversity 
Attenuate rain water 
Reduce noise 
etc, etc
What a wonderful company Aggregate Industries must be, you might think, to produce such a product. 

You might think that, because next to the photo the company writes "Our Sustainable products". 

Yet Aggregate Industries does not design, make or sell green walls. 

The photograph is greenwash. 

Aggregate Industries does not even operate in the same country as the photographed building.

Aggregate Industries' parent company – which also has form in this area – does however operate in Paris. It is not known for its green walls either – but is known for polluting the Seine.

Tuesday 16 April 2024

Aggregate Industries resumes sustainability reporting

... go to Aggregate Industries’ Sustainability Reports and Policies page and what do we now find? Not the back catalogue of sustainability reports previously there, nor a shiny new one for 2019. 

What we find instead is parent LafargeHolcim’s 2019 report – while Aggregate Industries’ CO2 numbers are suddenly nowhere to be found. 

We can obviously help with the back catalogue of reports – 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2000 – plotting Aggregate Industries’ CO2 journey: a company now emitting in the region of 1.3 million tonnes of CO2 each year, more than 5 times the amount it did in 1999

But has Aggregate Industries really given up reporting carbon emissions? 

Is it because the numbers stubbornly refused to fall despite best efforts, or is it because the company stubbornly refused to embrace more sustainable ways? 

Aggregate Industries' application to quarry Straitgate Farm would of course indicate the latter.
This time last year, was still not showing a sustainability report, although the company had in fact been burying CO2 figures for 20202021, and 2022 in financial reports lodged at Companies House.

So, is Aggregate Industries now ready to report its sustainability figures publicly again? Is the company ready to broadcast how much CO2 it is emitting? Are the figures at last going in the right direction? Does it finally have a positive story to tell?  

Clearly, the company thinks it does. In August last year, before leaving the company for sunnier climes, the then sustainability director issued these two reports:


The sustainability report for 2022 claims: 
Investments within our cement plant and efficiency improvements across all business areas have helped to reduce emissions compared to our 2020 baseline. 

On nature, the report is proud to tell us: 
Our Hillhead Quarry, near Cullompton in Devon, has a new woodland after we teamed up with a group of local residents and members of local environmental group the Uffculme Green Team, to plant around 1,100 trees. Native species including English oak, hornbeam, hazel, blackthorn, hawthorn and holly were planted to provide more wildlife-friendly habitat in the area. The scheme will benefit all species, but in particular the hazel dormouse, an elusive and declining species whose numbers have dropped by 50 per cent since the millennium and for which the south-west is somewhat of a stronghold. 
Bravo. But of course, that’s the same elusive and declining species prevalent in the ancient hedgerows at Straitgate that Aggregate Industries has earmarked for destruction. 

In the company’s Sustainability Strategy 2023 Update, the buzz word is community – which is as it should be, given the invasive nature of the company’s business model:
We will strive to make a positive impact on those communities where we live and operate.

We also recognise that our operations can have a negative impact on some of our neighbouring communities and we are committed to proactively eliminating or minimising this impact, wherever possible. We already have stringent planning obligations in place at many of our sites, which limit operating hours, number of truck movements, noise levels and dust emissions. However, we are committed to going above and beyond legal compliance which we see as our minimum requirement. We already do this in many cases and proactively engage with our local communities through meetings, open days and school visits. We also recognise that we are able to contribute to our neighbouring communities by donating staff time for volunteering activities, materials to help with local projects as well as monetary contributions. We are not only committed to continuing this but we will build on these successes. 
So, let’s see what happens at Straitgate. 

Let's see how far above and beyond the company is prepared to go.

Let's see how the company proactively engages with this neighbouring community, that has so far seen nothing but blight and aggravation. 

Let's see how much the company is able to contribute.

Let’s see if Aggregate Industries can walk the walk.

Wednesday 10 April 2024

Aggregate Industries’ Straitgate update for March

At a meeting last week, an update was provided by Aggregate Industries’ Planning Manager in relation to the implementation of the company's permission to quarry Straitgate Farm.  

Aggregate Industries is currently working on a number of schemes to satisfy pre-commencement planning conditions, including for HVO fuel use, dust, airport safeguarding, and water monitoring, together with a school travel plan, an archaeological scheme of investigation, a Landscape and Ecological Management Plan and a Construction Environmental Management Plan. 

In relation to water monitoring, a new team of hydrogeologists is now on the case; such work was previously undertaken by Wood/AFW/AMEC. This week, data loggers have been installed in all the piezometers, to resume the measurement of groundwater levels after a two-year break. Monitoring of 21 private water supplies surrounding Straitgate has now also started, which will include analysing water samples on a monthly basis. Stream flow monitoring will begin at a number of locations around the site as well. Twelve months of baseline water monitoring is required by the permission. The surface water management scheme is awaiting onsite infiltration tests, which are expected to be performed in June.  

Ecology surveys have also started. 

Aggregate Industries hopes to submit, for approval by Devon County Council, all the schemes to discharge pre-commencement planning conditions by the end of this year. It hopes to start site entrance works by the summer of 2025. The company has until 5 January 2026 to implement the permission.

Aggregate Industries appoints a new sustainability director, again

In June 2021, Kirstin McCarthy joined Aggregate Industries.

The position was new for Aggregate Industries. CEO, Dragan Maksimovic, proudly proclaimed: 
This appointment is placing us in a unique position at the forefront of our industry and we must continue challenging ourselves to continuously reduce our carbon footprint through innovation, commitment and personal accountability. 
Ms McCarthy added
I look forward to making my mark as the newest member of the executive committee and contributing to building a greener, smarter world for all. 
Six months later, Kirstin McCarthy came to County Hall in Exeter, to present to the councillors on the Development Management Committee, who were determining Aggregate Industries’ long-running planning application to quarry Straitgate Farm – see 24 minutes into this video.

Despite being new to the minerals industry, she was one of only two speakers put forward by Aggregate Industries. Clearly the company feared the proposal’s sustainability – or lack of – might be an issue.
My name is Kirstin McCarthy and I am the sustainability director at Aggregate Industries. I sit on the executive committee and I’m responsible for improving and accelerating our sustainability performance. I took a key interest in this application owing to some of the environmental concerns raised by the community. I have personally reviewed the environmental statement and feedback to date. My role here today is to provide assurance that this scheme will not have the detrimental effect that has been described by some of our objectors and most importantly I am here to listen to the concerns raised by our neighbours so that we can understand what work is required with the community to hopefully allay some of these fears.... etc etc 

Straitgate is sustainable because it’s about Devon making its contribution to the mineral supply in an environmentally responsible manner
Stirring words, but there was nothing about the wholly unsustainable 2.5 million miles in total that material would need to be hauled for processing, at a plant 23 miles away. 

That thorny issue had been greenwashed away in a S106 agreement that came to light a few days before the DMC meeting. No doubt fearing a backlash from decision makers, Aggregate Industries had committed to only using HVO biodiesel in the HGVs and onsite equipment. Fantastic news you might think, but some studies put HVO worse than regular diesel when changes in land use are accounted for. Even so, it has hefty financial implications, given the price premium of HVO, the intensive haulage plan, and the 7mpg or less managed by HGVs. 

What part Ms McCarthy played in the HVO decision, what mark she made as newest member of the executive committee, we will never know, but despite this commitment, and others, her presentation plainly didn’t cut it with councillors, who voted to refuse Aggregate Industries plans by 5 votes to 0, with 3 abstentions

Of course, as we all know, the company appealed and a Public Inquiry was held in 2022, which led to the decision being overturned

Elsewhere in the construction world, in December of that year, another sustainability director was being appointed – in this case Anna Baker at Kier Construction
Anna’s drive to really make a difference and proven ability to see the big picture will complement the work being done across the Group to achieve our targets in sustainability.
Anna Baker added
This is an exciting time to join Kier, a business I’ve long admired. With so much great work already underway, I’m looking forward to bringing my experience to the role and leading on the next steps of Kier’s sustainability journey for the Construction business.
The exciting times didn’t last. This month, little more than a year later, we find Anna Baker has joined Aggregate Industries as its Sustainability Director
Anna brings more than 20 years’ experience in sustainability within the construction industry and is responsible for accelerating the company’s journey to net-zero before 2050. 
Kirstin McCarthy, has moved on to sunnier climes: 
I’m happy to share that I'm starting a new position as Director of Sustainability at Sandals Resorts International! 
And who can blame her? 

This now means that – together with the Quarry Manager – both of Aggregate Industries' representatives at the 1 December DMC meeting have left the company. No wonder we asked
Is there anybody left working at Aggregate Industries who has played a meaningful part in putting together the plans to quarry Straitgate Farm?

EDIT 15.4.24 Aggregate Industries appoint new sustainability director:
Commenting on her new role, Ms Baker said: ‘Aggregate Industries is a future-focused and innovative company with sustainability at the heart of its vision. I’m thrilled to be joining this business and look forward to working alongside the talented teams here to deliver an ambitious sustainability agenda that will add real value for our customers and communities.’

Wednesday 3 April 2024

What Straitgate and 5 other mineral appeal decisions tell us – says AI’s KC

Richard Kimblin KC, of No5 Barristers’ Chambers, represented Aggregate Industries at the 8-day public inquiry in October 2022, instigated by the company following Devon County Council’s decision to refuse the company's application to quarry Straitgate Farm

It had been a busy 12 months for Mr Kimblin. 

In November 2021, he attended a 9-day planning inquiry representing Brett Aggregates in its attempt to overturn the decision of Hertfordshire County Council to refuse an 8 million tonne extension at the former Hatfield Aerodrome located between St Albans and Hatfield. 

In June 2022, he attended a 7-day planning inquiry representing Hanson in its attempt to overturn the decision of Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council to refuse a 10 million tonne extension at Craig yr Hesg Quarry in Pontypridd. 

In August 2022, he attended a 7-day planning inquiry representing Aggregate Industries in its attempt to overturn the decision of Dorset Council to refuse a 930,000 tonne extension at Chard Junction Quarry in the Dorset AONB. 

Trying to overturn local mineral decisions is seemingly Mr Kimblin's thing.

Two appeals went Mr Kimblin's way – Craig yr Hesg and Straitgate – and two didn't – Hatfield and Chard Junction. It was a 50% success rate for Aggregate Industries too, winning Straitgate but losing the ability to continue quarrying at Chard. 

Last year, Mr Kimblin gave a presentation about the four appeals, plus two others at Ware Park and Lea Castle*, at the Minerals Planning Conference, an event where members of the Mineral Products Association – the trade association representing Aggregate Industries et al. – get the chance to rub shoulders with council planners and others. 
More than 300 delegates, in person and on-line, attended the 2023 MPA/RTPI conference ‘Minerals Planning at a Crossroads’ on 15 June in London to hear from a range of expert speakers about the challenges facing minerals planning and how these may be met. 
The programme tells us the aim of Mr Kimblin's talk:
Richard Kimblin KC returns to the Minerals Planning Conference this year to provide the legal update. Richard will offer insight on legal issues arising from recent minerals planning appeals, issues which developers and decision-makers can help each other to avoid and a way to avoid lawyers.
Clearly, those poor multinational mineral companies need as much help as possible. 
The Straitgate Farm decision was picked out by Mr Kimblin specifically in relation to Climate Change • Growing concern for Committees and public, and the used-chip-fat solution advanced by Aggregate Industries in an attempt to mitigate its 2.5 million mile haulage plan. He quoted the Planning Inspectors who had said: 
"...we are satisfied that a condition requiring the use of hydrotreated vegetable oil as fuel would meet the tests in the Framework. On this basis the proposal would accord with Policy M20 of the DMP which requires development to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development, climate change resilience and mitigation, including through minimising the atmospheric release of greenhouse gases" Straitgate at §138 
Mr Kimblin also alluded to a pattern. We've made it easier to spot: 

You'd be forgiven for thinking that it didn't matter who turned up at mineral appeal inquiries, how many days they sat, who represented whom, what reports were written, which experts were called or not called, or what was seen on site visits. For these six decisions at least, landscape designation trumped everything – a warning to action groups and mineral companies alike.

* The Lea Castle decision has since been quashed in the High Court and will be re-determined by the Planning Inspectorate, as posted here.

Angry protestors at Pontypridd quarry extension draw ‘heavy police presence’

We posted about Craig yr Hesg Quarry, at Glyncoch near Pontypridd, back in 2020, when Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council originally rejected Hanson’s plans for a 10 million tonne extension. We edited the post in 2022 when the appeal was allowed.

An article by Ben Gosling in The Planner: The Appeals Annex: A tale of two quarries compared the Craig yr Hesg appeal decision with the one for Chard Junction Quarry in Dorset: 
The inspector in the Craig yr Hesg Quarry appeal accepted that the quarry caused stress and anxiety to locals, but did not accept their evidence that blasting at the quarry caused damage to their homes, because photos of cracks in walls were not supported by a structural survey. In Dorset, the inspector acknowledged that the quarry would cause noise disturbances to residents— after scrutinising a noise impact assessment provided by the appellant. 

Hard evidence is the key, but this can be an unaffordable option for residents and individuals. Heledd Fychan, Member of the Senedd Cymru for South Wales Central recognised this when the inspector’s decision was delivered: 
“Glyncoch is not an affluent area, and the planning inspectorate were critical of the fact that no hard evidence was presented to support their testimony, other than the images,” she said. “Collating such evidence is costly, meaning that communities will always struggle to have their voices and views heard as part of an appeal process without the means to do so. 

She continues: “Their testimony was powerful, and included pictures of cracks that have appeared in their homes which they believe have been caused by powerful blasts at the quarry, clouds of dust above the site, thick dust covering outside tables and cars, and evidence on how the lorries from the quarry are impacting their lives. 

“I find it disappointing that the views of local residents have been completely disregarded in relation to the quarry. Economic drivers and a need for the aggregate have trumped their views, meaning that they will have to continue to suffer the impact of the quarry. A quarry that they have had to live with for decades, and a quarry they were told would close when the last application prior to this was made to extend its life.” 
Last month, work started to erect a new security fence around the newly permitted extension.

This week, angry residents protested at the site drawing "a heavy police presence", as these articles from the BBC, Nation.Cymru and WalesOnline explain: 
Protestors have been gathering near the site of the quarry this week, with dozens joining for a second day of action on Tuesday, March 26. Residents say they are worried about the quarry's impact on their health from silica dust and the proximity to houses and public amenities like schools. They also believe it could disrupt wildlife and cause traffic issues, as well as impacting public rights of way. 

Heidelberg Materials UK has said it has addressed wildlife concerns and that "strict restrictons" on blasting and air quality monitoring were in place as well as other measures to mitigate any negative impact on residents. 

On Tuesday around 40 people gathered near the fence by the quarry site and there was a heavy police presence in the area. Dr Andrew Thomas, a university lecturer in Cardiff, was one of those protesting and said: “It’s fairly peaceful. There are about 40 or 50 of us, families, adults, children. About the same number of police and enforcement officers, about 30 of them. There is a bit of a standoff, but there is no pushing or shoving. 

Dr Thomas said the Welsh Government's decision to permit expansion for 29 years after RCT council rejected the plans was "scandalous", adding that it will leave the site within touching distance of residents' gardens in Glyncoch. 

"It’s been contained behind the mountain but the big controversy here is that this new land was used as a public right of way. So you have a working class community which is about 2,000 people who are literally 100 metres from the site, the legal distance from a quarry in the UK. There is a primary school which is 200m away too. 

"This is encroaching into their back garden. This is totally NIMBY because it is literally in their back garden. It is literally two rugby pitches away. 

"They’re impacted by blasting, which is felt right into their properties at least once a week. They’re also impacted by lorries going to and fro - it is a road which is only really fit for residential driving, not lorries. Their worry is how they are going to move the lorries into and from the new site. It’s a lot of unknowns and as soon as you have that you impact mental health. 

"I think once the dust starts blowing over and they are exposed to silica particles in their lungs… They’ve also lost a green space they were very sentimental about, their children’s upbringing playing in the woods is gone. 

"It blocks off access to parts of the countryside and it hasn’t been made clear how public rights of way will be protected. Nothing has been communicated. 

"I cannot believe this has been signed because it goes against everything the Welsh Government claims to support. It’s so sad. And there is no reason for it to have been done it this way. You can’t stop the planning but you can slow them down doing what they want to do. We don’t believe they care." 
None of this, the blasting, the cracks, the noise, the dust, the health fears, for decades more, would have cut any slack with Mr Kimblin KC – the barrister representing Hanson at the public inquiry, and the subject of this post. In fact, at the Inquiry, he even argued that the refusal by Rhondda Cynon Taf CBC was "perverse" and "unreasonable" and that the Council – a cash-strapped Council "in one of the most deprived areas of Wales" – should pay Hanson’s, now rebranded Heidelberg Materials, appeal costs, a request that was upheld

That’s hardly the way to endear yourself to a community facing decades more quarrying.

Judge quashes inspector’s green belt quarry refusal over biodiversity net gain ‘error’

Last year, campaigners at Stop Lea Castle Farm Quarry action group suffered a setback in their efforts to stop a controversial quarry plan. 

In 2022, Worcestershire County Council had refused permission for NRS Aggregates to quarry 3 million tonnes of sand and gravel over a period of about 10 years at Lea Castle Farm, near Kidderminster. In 2023, the company appealed the decision. Following an 8-day public inquiry, the inspector rejected the company's appeal concluding the scheme would "not preserve the openness of the green belt". The company applied for a judicial review of the inspector's decision NRS Saredon Aggregates Ltd v Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities & Anor [2023] EWHC 2795 (Admin). In November, the judge found in favour of the minerals company, saying that the inspector had "erred in law" by referring to future legislation on biodiversity net gain. The inspector's decision was quashed. 

You have to feel for the campaigners, who will now face another Public Inquiry. In February, the Planning Inspectorate wrote
Following a High Court challenge to our Inspector’s decision on this appeal dated 5th May 2023, the Court has ordered that the appeal be re-determined. This does not necessarily mean that the Inspector will reach a different overall decision.
Fighting mineral applications is not for the faint-hearted.

MP urges Aggregate Industries to change Leighton Buzzard quarry plans

Aggregate Industries is on the wrong side of the local community again, this time by apparently reneging on restoration plans at a quarry near Leighton Buzzard that had previously been earmarked as a water sports centre. 

 An Aggregate Industries spokesperson for the Garside Sands operation said: 
We have applied to extend our planning terms to enable an additional 3.3 million tonnes of specialist sands to be extracted from land south of Grovebury Quarry which we estimate would take between nine and 14 years, starting from July 2026 - with a further six years to complete full restoration. 
Andrew Selous, MP for South West Bedfordshire said: 
I very much understand the concerns of Billington residents and have asked Aggregate Industries to mitigate their plans by moving the works further away from peoples homes. I am also pressing for the earliest possible restoration of the site for leisure and recreational use for Leighton Buzzard residents as well.

UK company directors may be personally liable for climate impacts, say lawyers

A legal opinion published this week found that board directors had duties to consider how their business affected and depended on nature. These included climate-related risks as well as wider risks to biodiversity, soils and water. 

The analysis said directors of UK firms faced serious personal consequences for breaching these duties, potentially including claims for damages or compensation by their shareholders.

Calls for greater use of recycled sand ‘to help preserve threatened natural resource’

Wednesday 27 March 2024

Gloucestershire CC ordered to pay £180k after losing quarry appeal

The costs to Councils – and taxpayers – of defending themselves against mineral companies appealing against local democratic decisions became apparent this week. 

In 2023, Gloucestershire County Council refused an application 23/0001/REFUSE by Moreton C Cullimore to extract 1.5 million tonnes of sand and gravel at Bow Farm near Tewkesbury, contrary to planning officer advice. According to Gloucestershirelive
...the proposals which also included a concrete batching plant, the creation of clean water ponds, silt ponds and stock piles at the 160-acre site were met with strong opposition from hundreds of residents. A total of 257 people objected, raising concerns over noise, the health and environmental impact of dust generated at the site and the impact it would have on nearby businesses such as Hilton Puckrup Hall Hotel. Some 72 people wrote in support. 
The company appealed. A one-day hearing took place in December. The main issues were: 
• the effect of the proposal on the local economy with regard to dust and noise; and 
• whether the proposal is contrary to the Council’s declared climate emergency and the national planning policy objectives for transitioning to a low carbon future.
In January this year, the inspector allowed the appeal and also ruled that the Council must pay the company's costs. The inspector explained:
The PPG makes it clear that a local planning authority is at risk of an award of costs if it fails to produce evidence to substantiate each reason for refusal on appeal and/or makes vague, generalised or inaccurate assertions about a proposal’s impact which are unsupported by any objective analysis. Other examples of unreasonable behaviour include preventing or delaying development which should clearly be permitted having regard to its accordance with the development plan, national policy and any other material considerations, and refusing planning permission on a planning ground capable of being dealt with by conditions, where it is concluded that suitable conditions would enable the proposed development to go ahead.

And concluded: 

In the planning judgement, it appears to me that having regard to the provisions of the development plan, national planning policy and other relevant considerations, the proposed development should not have reasonably been refused. The refusal of permission therefore constitutes unreasonable behaviour contrary to the guidance in the PPG and the applicant has been faced with the unnecessary expense of addressing these matters.
This week, at a Planning Committee meeting, it was announced that the Council is to pay £180,349 to cover Cullimore's appeal costs. Punchline-Gloucester reported:
Council officers revealed yesterday there was no budget for a loss of this kind and the payment would result in an overspend in the budget.

But councillors on the planning committee said they had "no regrets" and would make the same decision again to try and protect residents and the planet...

Cllr Bernard Fisher (LD, St Paul's and Swindon) said: "It was a majority decision of the committee and that is our prerogative. "If you want to do away with democracy you can have a rubber stamp to go along with all officers recommendations. Like us, they are human and they get it wrong. "People who can afford the most expensive lawyers often win. But not pursuing a case because you can't afford to pay the costs is not the way we should operate. "The people of that area will have to live with this decision. I have no regrets." 

Cllr Susan Williams (C, Bisley and Painswick) said: "I totally agree. I voted against it because I felt it was morally right for me to make that decision. "Without us standing up there won't be change in the future. It needs to start at county level. I stand by my decision."
The £180k the Council must pay is obviously in addition to its own costs for defending the appeal.
For comparison, the appeal mounted by Aggregate Industries in 2022 against Devon County Council's decision to refuse planning permission for a quarry at Straitgate Farm resulted in an 8-day public inquiry. The Council defended each of the seven reasons given for refusing permission. At the inquiry, the main issues were: 
i) the effect of the development on water supplies and human health; 
ii) its effect on drainage and flood risk; 
iii) its effect on heritage assets; 
iv) its effect on trees and hedgerows; 
v) its effect on highway safety; and 
vi) its effect on biodiversity. 
vii) The sustainability of transporting sand and gravel by road from Straitgate Farm to Hillhead Quarry. 
No application for costs was made by Aggregate Industries. No costs were awarded by the Inspectors. 

The Council's reasons for refusing the company permission to quarry Straitgate Farm were – despite going against planning officer advice – wholly reasonable.

Quarry archeological investigations cost Forterra £500k

Signs of Roman buildings, and a settlement of Iron Age roundhouses from over 2000 years ago, were certainly not what Aggregate Industries wanted to find when archaeological surveys were carried out at Straitgate Farm in 2014. But what did it expect? The site's prominent hilltop position was an important junction, where a Roman road (the Fosse Way – the old A30) crossed a Saxon road (B3180) running from the Blackdown Hills to Exmouth. 

v. stræt , geat . The farm lies by the Roman road to Exeter. For the geat , v. supra 603 n.
Results from the trench evaluation at Straitgate revealed that: 
Including the Long Range site and Areas 2 and 6 at Straitgate it is apparent that this Iron Age open settlement extends over an area of potentially c. 10 hectares... based on the geophysics and trench results, around 12-15 further roundhouses in total might be anticipated... Three pieces of Romano-British period tile from overlying deposits and two holed slates from the large ditch in Trenches 22 and 56 may indicate a ‘Romanised’ building is present in the vicinity... new evidence for Romano-British settlement was identified, dated from the artefacts recovered to the 2nd to 3rd centuries AD, including a substantial linear ditch of 30m length, c. 5m width and over 2.2m depth. 
Based on these finds, Aggregate Industries put forward a proposed archaeological mitigation map.     

Condition 23 of the Planning Inspectorate's permission to quarry Straitgate Farm says: 
No development shall take place until a written Archaeological Scheme of Investigation has been submitted to and approved in writing by the Mineral Planning Authority and implementation of a programme of archaeological work has been secured. The development shall be carried out at all times in accordance with the approved scheme. 
One company that knows a thing or two about Archaeological Schemes of Investigation is brick-producer Forterra, or Hanson Building Products as it was previously known. Last week, it announced that archeological investigations of a 3,000 year old Bronze Age settlement at Must Farm, a quarry close to its Kings Dyke brickworks in Whittlesey, Peterborough, had set it back in excess of £500k. 

The quarry provides Oxford Clay, used in the production of London Bricks. The material has been quarried in the area for more than 140 years. 

The Must Farm project, described as "Britain’s Pompeii":   
was a 10-month excavation of a settlement at the site that was destroyed by fire, causing it to collapse into a river channel, preserving the contents in situ.
decaying timbers were discovered protruding from the southern face of the quarry pit at Must Farm. Subsequent investigations in 2004 and 2006 dated the timbers to the Bronze Age and identified them as a succession of large structures spanning an ancient watercourse.
During the excavation in 2015-16 by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit (CAU) of four large wooden roundhouses and a square entranceway structure: 
archaeologists retrieved almost 200 wooden artefacts, more than 150 fibre and textile items, 128 pottery vessels and more than 90 pieces of metalwork. More than 18,000 pieces of structural wood were recorded.
Two open-access publications, published and funded by Cambridge’s McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, have now been launched detailing the finds, and next month some of the preserved objects will go on display at Peterborough Museum.

The Department of Archeology at the University of Cambridge wrote
Detailed monographs on thousands of artefacts pulled from the settlement at Must Farm reveals the surprisingly sophisticated domestic lives of Bronze Age Fen people, from home interiors to recipes, clothing, kitchenware and pets 
This week, Forterra, having shared the £1.1m cost of the excavation, claimed to be "delighted to have been involved in the uncovering and documenting of Must Farm". 

Forterra may claim to be delighted now, but excavation of the site might never have happened had the company had its way. In 2014, Hanson had pushed to leave the archeology in situ. However, Cambridgeshire County Council, on advice from English Heritage and the University of Cambridge, Division of Archaeology, said in a Planning Committee report
9.1 It is recommended that the applicants be advised that the proposed revised rewetting scheme submitted in May 2013 is considered to be contrary to the provisions of Policy CS36 in that the revised scheme of preservation in situ is not considered suitable or appropriate in the circumstances and refused. 

 9.2 It is further recommended that Hanson be advised that they should, within the next three months submit a further revised scheme of archaeological mitigation being a focused strategy to retrieve and record the vulnerable remains of the Late Bronze Age Timber Platform Site at the edge of Old Must Pit, in order to safeguard the remains from further damage or decay. 
Fortunately for Hanson, the company was successful with a subsequent application to English Heritage (now Historic England) to cover half the excavation costs. 

The rest, as they say, is history.

EA starts final 6-week public consultation on Hemerdon processing plant

The previous operator of the Hemerdon tin and tungsten mine near Plympton caused low frequency noise disturbance and sleep deprivation to local people, before falling into insolvency in 2018

Tungsten West, the current operator, has taken strides to fix the previous noise issues and this week announced that the Environment Agency, which is now "minded to grant" an environmental permit for the previously offending Mineral Processing Facility, has commenced a final six week public consultation. Neil Gawthorpe, CEO of the company, commented:  
The receipt and acceptance of the draft permit for the MPF has been a positive milestone for the Company. It represents a significant step in securing the further funding required for the Project, and delivering our key objective of recommencing operations at the Hemerdon mine and providing an ethical and sustainable domestic supply of critical minerals.
The Environment Agency has a web page and video explaining the consultation process and the changes Tungsten West has made to the plant: 
We are seeking your comments on the proposed decision for a new bespoke application for an environmental permit from Drakelands Restoration Limited for Hemerdon Mine Tungsten West Ltd Plympton PL7 5BW
We can take account of
* Relevant environmental regulatory requirements and technical standards. 
* Information on local population and sensitive sites. 
* Comments on whether the right process is being used for the activity, for example whether the technology is the right one. 
* The shape and use of the land around the site in terms of its potential impact, whether that impact is acceptable and what pollution control or abatement may be required. 
* The impact of noise and odour from traffic on site. 
* Permit conditions by providing information that we have not been made aware of in the application, or by correcting incorrect information in the application (e.g. monitoring and techniques to control pollution). 

EDIT 28.3.24 Tungsten West funding update

Wednesday 20 March 2024

Run-off problems at Venn Ottery. Would AI’s legacy at Straitgate be the same?

Aggregate Industries' surface water management plan for Straitgate Farm has yet to be approved. In 2016, we posted
Watercourses originating from Straitgate pass through four communities downstream; communities that are prone to flooding. Any quarrying at Straitgate Farm must not make the situation worse, either during work or afterwards. DCC has requested that any plans make the situation better. How this could be so, with the loss of millions of gallons of groundwater storage capacity in the unsaturated layer of sand and gravel on top of the hill above these communities, remains to be seen.
Pre-Commencement Condition 6 states: 
No development hereby permitted shall commence until a Construction and Environmental Management Plan... has been submitted to and approved in writing by the Mineral Planning Authority. The Plan shall include... (d) details of the management of surface water during the construction and soil stripping phases 
The plan is still up in the air because the company has yet to produce any reliable infiltration rates. Condition 13 states:
(b) Updated infiltration tests shall be carried out using an infiltrometer and shall be undertaken in strict accordance with BRE Digest 365 Soakaway Design (2016) and must be undertaken within the Budleigh Salterton Pebble Beds. A representative number of tests shall be conducted in order to provide adequate coverage of the site, with particular focus placed on the locations and depths of potential infiltration devices; 
The results of these tests will inform the size of attenuation ponds required to stop downslope flooding, remembering Condition 25 which states:
No water body shall be created within the site other than the approved weigh bridge lagoon.  
Why is it important to get these infiltration tests right? Look at the problems at Venn Ottery, with fingers being pointed towards Aggregate Industries' worked-out sand and gravel quarry, uphill and nearby. 

More than a million tonnes of material were removed between 2011 and 2016, material that would have previously acted as a 'sponge' for rainfall above a downstream community. 

We’ve posted about surface water run-off problems from this site before. 

Back in 2015, Devon County Council admitted in correspondence that flooding in Venn Ottery was "to do with the quarrying activities". Newton Poppleford and Harpford Parish Council minutes also reported: 
Cllr Cole reported that the Quarry Manager was taking further remedial action to create a better settlement ponding system and other works to alleviate the problem of the Neighboring fields being washed out. A new pipe was to be placed under Green Lane where it had washed out. 
In 2016, Devon County Council's monitoring report for the quarry reported: 
Significant amount of run off was present in the waterbodies at the time of the visit.
In the same year, local people – in response to the company's planning application to restore the quarry to a higher level than was previously approved following "an error with the previous estimated amount" – reported "ongoing issues with surface water run-off from the quarry". The Council responded, saying: 
6.22 It is accepted that there have been a few occasions when surface water has discharged from the site, but in these instances the operator has acted quickly to remedy the situation and it is considered that the final restoration of the site (which includes water storage features) will adequately deal with any surface water issues.
Clearly, it hasn't, and the problem has become worse.
Last year, Venn Ottery "experienced its worst flooding event", according to the Venn Ottery & Southerton Residents Association. A Devon County Council report says nine properties were flooded internally. VOSRA claims: 
The increased run-off from the (now closed) Venn Ottery Quarry brought a river of water along the track from the Otterdene area to Venn Ottery green, where it crossed along 2 routes to join the stream that runs alongside the green and through the back gardens of 1-5 Barton Mews.
VOSRA compiled an extensive dossier of previous flooding events – including the map below – which was sent to East Devon District Council, Devon County Council, the Environment Agency, and the local MP. The dossier claims: 
From about 2012 onwards residents in the houses on west side of Venn Ottery green have noticed an increase in the volume of water running along the unmetalled road and across the green. Within a couple of years of starting quarrying in 2010, water from the quarry site caused the track that runs westeast from the Otterdene (Happy Valley) area towards Venn Ottery to become impassable, and the field nearby to (behind Dartwood, Brookdell) to be waterlogged. Similarly, ’Puddle Lane’ became even more muddy. When requested by the local community, Aggregate Industries provided quantities of pebbles to improve the drainage and raise the level of the track to some extent. 
The quarrying ceased and in 2017-18 the land was ‘restored’. An area on the northeast was formed into an attenuation lake to hold back excess water run-off. The lake is not very large so cannot always retain all the water, which then runs downhill and into VO. 
VOSRA is calling for action: 
The attenuation pond at the eastern corner of the closed quarry site is undersized and has no controls on overflow. Extension of the pond and the installation of a sluice to control the outflow could greatly reduce the speed at which water flows. 
How did this attenuation pond come to be so undersized, when such important details should have been scrutinised by Aggregate Industries’ expert consultants, as well as the relevant statutory bodies?

Could it be that infiltration rates in this material – the Budleigh Salterton Pebble Beds, the same material as at Straitgate – were assumed to be higher than in reality? At Straitgate, Aggregate Industries assumed inflated infiltration rates of 1m/d to size attenuation features, ignoring results of soakaway tests, which showed "Insufficient drop in water level".

The problems at Venn Ottery, however, don’t stop at downslope flooding. 

A bridleway was provided by Aggregate Industries on the eastern side of the site as a condition of the S106 agreement associated with processing the material at Blackhill, to "provide a safe alternative for part of the HGV route". 

Last month, part of the bridleway was washed away. Water running off the site has left a deep, unsafe canyon, and the bridleway has been closed.

Once upon a time, in answer to critics of the Venn Ottery plans, Aggregate Industries claimed:
We shall be putting back a lot more than we're taking away.
Locals, bailing water out from their houses, having their PROW swept away, might not be so sure.

Saturday 16 March 2024

Wettest 18 months on record – and still no groundwater monitoring at Straitgate

This week, the Environment Agency reported the wettest February in Devon and Cornwall, and the wettest 12 months in England, since records began in 1871. The FT went a step further, and reported that England has been drenched with the wettest 18 months since records began in 1836.  

The Planning Inspectors stipulated in their appeal decision that the estimated maximum water table at Straitgate Farm, the MWWT, the level the company is permitted to quarry down to, would be updated to reflect higher groundwater readings.

What is Aggregate Industries doing about this? Absolutely nothing at all. The company has not done any monitoring of groundwater levels at Straitgate for 2 years.
It's not the first time we've posted about this sorry situation. In December, we posted ‘Exceptionally high’ rainfall – and still no water monitoring at Straitgate, and last April, Wettest March since 1981 – and Straitgate groundwater levels not monitored.

Friday 15 March 2024

Where would we be without geologists?

We have – from as early as 2013 – questioned the level of mineral resource at Straitgate Farm, given the ever increasing maximum water table, beneath which Aggregate Industries is not permitted to dig.

Aggregate Industries’ application to quarry Straitgate Farm was eventually permitted by the Planning Inspectorate on the basis of: 
Extraction of up to 1.5 million tonnes of as raised sand and gravel, restoration to agricultural land together with temporary change of use of a residential dwelling to a quarry office/welfare facility
Of course, there is not 1.5 million tonnes available – even Aggregate Industries admits that

Whilst in 2011, the company claimed that for Straitgate Farm "a saleable tonnage of 3,450,000 tonnes has been proven for the proposed phase one extraction area, and 3,795,000 tonnes has been proven for the proposed phase two extraction area", Aggregate Industries now claims there is only 1.06 million tonnes of saleable aggregate. 

It is a figure that will be reduced again by any upward revisions to the MWWT, and by any of the "unmapped local faulting": 
At [nearby] Marshbroadmoor, the original planning application promised 1.1 million tonnes, but, due to 'geological faulting', no more than 200,000 tonnes ever came out.  
Minerals Surveyors Wardell Armstrong, in evidence to the Competition Commission’s Aggregates Markets Investigation, claimed: aggregates operator would consider (for example) trying to develop a sand and gravel deposit of less than one million tonnes. We have clients who have sites which have been turned down on this basis. The planning and development costs are considered too great on a per tonne basis. 
Aggregate Industries must be desperate. 

At least we can be thankful that the company's "calculations have been undertaken by Chartered Geologists". 

Or can we? The following joke springs to mind: 
There is a geologist, geophysicist, and a petroleum engineer in a room with their boss. The boss asks, "What’s 2 times 2?" The geologist thinks for a while says "well it’s probably more than 3 and less than 5". The geophysicist punches it into his calculator and answers that it’s 3.999999. The petroleum engineer gets up, locks the door, pulls the curtains, unplugs the phone and says, "What do you want it to be?" 
And even this, from that fountain of wisdom Calvin & Hobbes: 

Naturally, with or without a knowledge of math, Aggregate Industries’ business model of digging holes in the ground calls upon geologists, and last week the company put the call out for a new one
The selected candidate will be instrumental in exploring, evaluating, and advising on the geologic aspects crucial to our extraction and production processes. This is a great opportunity for the new postholder to make their stamp within a team which has recently been heavily invested with technology. 
Perhaps, heavily invested with technology, we can now expect more reliable estimations of mineral resources from Aggregate Industries. After all, the company’s last two quarries in East Devon produced significantly less than expected, and there’s every chance Straitgate, with all its issues, would too.


Devon quarry hosts UK’s first driverless dump truck

The number of people employed by the quarrying industry has been in decline for many years, as we posted back in 2012, when we pointed to the fact that in 1968, 41 and 148 people worked at the nearby Blackhill and Rockbeare sites respectively, and wrote: 
Even over the last 10 years there has been a dramatic fall in employee numbers in sand and gravel, with the UK Minerals Yearbook reporting over 8000 employees in 2001, but under 3000 in 2010. The HSE says the "industry has difficulty attracting and recruiting staff" and "anecdotal evidence suggests an ageing workforce". 
Will the use of autonomous vehicles hasten that decline still further? 

This week, Sibelco’s china-clay Cornwood Quarry, near Ivybridge in Devon, hosted the UK launch of an autonomous articulated dump truck "designed to help futureproof the effectiveness and competitiveness of quarrying operations within the minerals and aggregates industry". 

The demonstration, from Chepstow Plant International and Bell Equipment, used technology from Xtonomy, a German company specialising in autonomous haulage systems: 
The development of autonomous driving capability opens the door to a range of operational efficiency, safety, environmental, and employee benefits to underpin the sector going forward.
Commenting on the Bell B40E dump truck, which also uses HVO instead of diesel, Ben Uphill, operations director for Kingsteignton Cluster at quarry-owner Sibelco, said: 
We envisage many benefits from having access to this sector-first autonomous ADT solution. The minerals and aggregates sector must embrace technology as a way of continually delivering improvements across our daily operations and cost base.