Banks Blog: “Changing perceptions of surface coal mining in the UK” by George Oldroyd, Banks Mining

February 11, 2019 | Mining News

Pictured above: George Oldroyd, graduate planner, Banks Mining and one of The Banks Group's bloggers

Did you know that the UK continues to extract three million tonnes of coal in the UK per year?

Did you also know that Banks Mining part of The Banks Group contributes to the mining of approximately one million tonnes of that coal and is now the largest coal company in the UK?

I certainly wasn’t aware of this before joining The Banks Group. In fact, if you asked me what I thought about coal mining in the UK, then I probably would not have been able to offer an opinion, I considered it to be an industry of a bygone era. My only thought about what I considered to be a “bygone industry”. My late Great Grandad was the local coal merchant in the town I grew up in – but that was about all I knew to be honest.

How wrong I was.

I joined The Banks Group in June 2018 as a graduate planner straight from Newcastle University. Since joining The Banks Group last summer my knowledge and appreciation for what is still a vitally important industry to support our day-to-day needs has increased a lot. I did not know that in the UK around six or seven million tonnes of coal per year is used by industry to make steel and cement.

My extremely limited knowledge of opencast or surface coal mining on the first day that I started, was that it was just a big hole in the ground where coal was extracted by huge machines and was then left.

Again, how wrong I was.

I feel somewhat ignorant for having previously thought this, especially knowing what I know now.

This “Banks blog” will show my first-hand experience of the wide ranging environmental, social and economic benefits that The Banks Group’s projects have on the communities that they serve, whether these projects are Mining, Renewables or Property. In my first post however, I’m going to focus on how my perception of surface coal mining has changed in my eight months (so far) as a Banks Group employee, just by simply understanding the process.

So, to explain the surface coal mining process in the most laymen of terms, in my own words, it goes something like this:

The site finders and geologists identify land that have a known coal resource and calculate how much coal could be extracted.

The engineers then create a design for how the site can be worked: This includes calculating the amount of rock and/or soil that overlies the coal and clay deposits; how much of that needs to be moved; how and where this “overburden” material needs stored on site; and how big the hole will be.

At the same time that the engineers are drawing up these plans, our landscape architect is already drawing plans for how the site will be restored to the highest environmental standards once coal extraction has finished.

Once these plans have been drawn up, it’s up to the planners to prepare a planning application and submit to the local planning authority.

Once submitted, we now wait……………..

Eight months pass and if the “powers that be” (these include the local planning authority, which includes local authority planning officers; the local authority Councillors who sit on the planning committee, and statutory consultees such as parish and community councils, Environment Agency, Civil Aviation Authority, Highways England, Historic England, Natural England and so on) find our application acceptable, we then have planning permission to go and extract this nationally important mineral.

Throughout the lifespan of the operational site, there are regular environmental audits to make sure that we are doing everything within our power to reduce the environmental effects of the working site. These include, noise monitoring, continuous air quality and vibration monitoring, all of which are carried out to ensure that the local communities in which we operate have the most positive experience possible while we are there. This is development with care.

Depending on how big the site is, and for how long the planning permission lasts, it could take between twelve months to eight years to extract the coal, but it’s important to remember that as the site continues to work in a linear direction it is being progressively restored. This means that once the site has finished extracting all the coal that it can, the site is pretty much at a stage where there is no big hole in the ground anymore, trees can be planted, wildlife havens can be created and all different kinds of grasslands are seeded to offer a habitat for numerous species to thrive for many many years after we have gone. For example many different types of bat, voles, otters, newts, foxes, deer and birds such as owls, kestrels and peregrine falcons to name a few all take up residence on our restored sites. I think this is genuinely sustainable development.

After the site is restored it enters a period called “aftercare”. This typically lasts for five years. Aftercare is where we maintain and care for the restored site ensuring the natural environment is flourishing and wildlife continues to thrive. It’s during this phase that it is so hard to believe that there was once a big hole in the ground, but this is the beauty of carrying out such projects, being able to see your positive contribution to the UK’s “green and pleasant land”.

Banks Mining has also been at the forefront of developing and implementing a “restoration first” concept. This is where we seek to provide some of the benefits associated with mineral extraction and restoration in the early stages of operations, rather than having to wait until the job has been completed. This can involve several approaches, such as extra land not needed for mining being used to deliver a lasting positive legacy for both the local area and the wider region at an early stage in the development of a given surface mine. This led directly to the creation of Northumberlandia at our Shotton site: www.banksgroup.co.uk/projects/mining/northumberlandia-landform/. See: Again I think this is genuinely sustainable development – leaving the land better than we found it.

So this is just a snapshot of how surface coal mining works, but as I’m sure you can tell, it is a far cry from the bygone era or the “big hole in the ground” that many perceive it to be. In fact the environmental benefits of The Banks Group’s mining projects is astonishing and these will definitely be covered in future blog posts.

But for the purpose of this blog post, I think it’s fair to say that my perception on surface coal mining has changed for the better and I’m sure that other people’s perceptions will change too.

George Oldroyd, Banks Mining, February 2019

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