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Urgent Question: The Ffos-y-fran Opencast Coalmine

March 14, 2017

9 speeches by…

  • Elin Jones
  • Carl Sargeant
  • Dawn Bowden
  • Mohammad Asghar
  • Bethan Jenkins

Elin Jones

I have accepted four urgent questions under Standing Order 12.66, and I call on Dawn Bowden to ask the first urgent question—Dawn Bowden.

Carl Sargeant

I thank the Member for her question. Welsh Government met with the special rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and waste on 24 January. His preliminary findings and recommendations were presented in an end-of-mission statement on 31 January, and the full report will be presented to the UN human rights council in September of this year.

Dawn Bowden

Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. Before this news broke on Friday, I had met previously with some of the local residents, protesters and Merthyr council, and I'd undertaken a site visit to Ffos-y-fran, including a lengthy meeting with the operators. So, I was already very aware of the concerns surrounding the operation there, and for some time I've been seeking assurances about a range of environmental and health issues. However, I wasn't aware that a United Nations representative was visiting the area, meeting with local residents and proposing to make a public pronouncement. It is of course right that the rapporteur undertakes whatever studies he deems fit, but I was somewhat surprised that he appears to have made statements to the media without detailed discussions with those bodies criticised in his report. Nor did he seek discussions with the local elected representatives, either at the council, with myself as the AM, or with my colleague Gerald Jones as the MP before producing his report, to establish a wider view of actions taken. At this stage, Cabinet Secretary, I think it’s probably difficult for me to take an informed view on the rapporteur’s conclusions, although I would of course welcome any legitimate call for an inquiry into any potential health impact of the Ffos-y-fran operation if the evidence suggests that that is necessary. One particular area of the report where I do absolutely share his concern, however, is the future maintenance of standards in the UK of public health and environmental protection post Brexit. If you’ve seen the report, Cabinet Secretary, you will know that he calls on the UK Government to fulfil its human rights obligations on air pollution, protecting the rights of children, women of productive age, the elderly and those of poor health, who are especially vulnerable to toxic chemicals, in developing the new plan to tackle this air pollution crisis. So, can you assure me, Cabinet Secretary, that the Welsh Government will work with the UK Government and the United Nations to consider any concerns highlighted in this report in relation to Ffos-y-fran in particular, but also, more generally, those relating to human rights around environmental protections, both now and post Brexit?

Carl Sargeant

The very short answer to your question is ‘yes’. We will continue to work with all of those parties. I am aware that the Minister did meet with the rapporteur, and it is certainly unique, his opinion. But if the Member has any concerns she would like to raise specifically about Ffos-y-fran, I’m sure the Minister accordingly would welcome a letter from the Member.

Mohammad Asghar

Cabinet Secretary, further to my colleague here, residents living alongside the Ffos-y-fran opencast mine have long campaigned against air and noise pollution. There is anecdotal evidence of very high rates of childhood asthma and cancer clusters within the community. I would like to ask a couple of questions, Minister, if you’d kindly reply. If there is no independent investigation, what action will the Welsh Government take to monitor the potential health impact on the community of this opencast mine, and will they commission their own study? The second is: the Welsh Assembly has imposed a 500m buffer zone between new opencast mines in Wales and the community that surrounds them. I remember in previous Assembly sessions Bethan Jenkins raised this point in her area. A lot of points were actually agreed by the Assembly that opencast mines should not be near the housing areas, yet the nearest houses to Ffos-y-fran are only 40m away from the mining activities, which is against our laws and rules here. Does the Cabinet Secretary believe that the residents should be entitled to some form of compensation for the disturbance they are being forced to suffer in this case? The other one is: what discussions have the Welsh Government had in the past, and what discussions do they intend to have, with Miller Argent, the mining company, about negating the effect of their mining operation on the local community? Finally, Minister, will the Welsh Government agree to consider the contents of this report and bring forward a statement to this Assembly in the near future with any changes it proposes to make to planning regulations on opencast sites in Wales? Thank you.

Carl Sargeant

I’m very aware of the emotive issues around opencast mining. The Ffos-y-fran site was granted permission in April of 2005. It was subject then to an environmental impact assessment. This meant that all relevant issues, including cumulative effects, and those relating to health, were taken into account as part of that decision-making process. The report the Member raises is being presented to the UN human rights council, and not to us. I will ask the Minister on her return to have a consideration about this, and I will ask her to write to Members in accordance with her views.

Bethan Jenkins

First, I think I need to say that the response of Miller Argent to this report is insulting and undermines the severity of the situation. Describing this as ‘fake news’—a report from a UN rapporteur—is frankly disgusting and is outrageous considering that the local community have been raising these concerns for some time. I’m also very concerned that Merthyr county council responded by dismissing legitimate concerns and everyday experiences of residents as ‘limited and unsubstantiated comments from some members of the community’. So, first, I’d like to ask you here today: will you join with me in condemning those very comments, considering that these are not unsubstantiated and these are views that have been raised with you when you were the former environment Minister for this Assembly? I’d also like to understand where your plans are now with regard to the restoration discussions that you had in your previous role as Minister. Many of us took part in that. Where do they stand? Restoration at Ffos-y-fran is very piecemeal as opposed to it being constructive and long-term and we’d like to understand where that is going. I’ve also raised concerns about the coal MTAN and the fact that that is not strong enough. It needs to be amended and changed. It needs to be put into legislation. Can you commit, if this UN rapporteur is to be taken seriously, that you as a Government will try and work to your best possible action in making sure that we have these issues dealt with, so that future opencast mining applications are not dealt with in the same way, and that ones in areas such as East Pit in Cwmllynfell and Margam are also treated in the same manner?

Carl Sargeant

I thank the Member for the question. As always, she is very robust in her views on opencast mining. This Government takes very seriously the health implications and planning conditions presented in all our communities and takes that very seriously in the technical advice notes and planning guidance that we issue to planning authorities. What is really important is that any observation made by the special rapporteur is evidence based. I will be very interested to see the detail of that plan and his completed presentation. The Member will be aware that the planning Minister will make views on the MTAN 2 and the subsequent discussions that took place around the deliberations around what MTAN 2 was made up of. I will ask her to respond to you directly on that issue as I’m no longer the planning Minister in those terms.