GIVEN the extensive coverage, regular readers of the Argus and Pontypool Free Press will be aware that proposals to develop an opencast coal mine on Varteg Hill in North Torfaen have caused tremendous concern.

Varteg residents, as well as parents, teachers and governors from Ysgol Bryn Onnen – a primary school that’s fewer than 100 metres away from the proposed site – were left shell-shocked and totally dismayed last month when the Welsh Government environment minister revealed that he was “minded to approve” the plans.

The planning application was originally rejected by Torfaen council, before being referred to a full public planning inquiry after the developers lodged an appeal. So obviously, the announcement came as a significant blow, not least because the proposals run counter to Welsh Government planning guidance stating that a 500m ‘buffer zone’ should exist between opencast mines and adjacent settlements.

Unanimously backed by Assembly members, this guidance was issued after a lengthy and vigorous public and political debate, and is supposed to protect communities from the noise, dust and other negative impacts associated with open-cast mining.

Despite this setback, having attended two public meetings since then, it’s clear that there’s huge opposition to the development, and no desire whatsoever to give up the fight – with the immediate priority being to get sight of the inspector’s report from which the minister has drawn his conclusions. We know of other cases where an inspector’s report has been released at this stage in the planning process, and I’ve submitted separate requests under the Freedom of Information Act and Environmental Information Regulations in an effort to persuade the minister to get things out in the open.

Meanwhile, a petition has been launched by local campaigners, calling for the guidance on the 500- metre buffer zone to be incorporated into Welsh planning law, and the environment minister has faced pressure from politicians across the political divide in the Assembly on this issue.

I also raised the matter with the first minister during questions last week and I intend to continue doing everything I can to keep up the fight in the Assembly.

The situation in Varteg is being seen as a test case, and could have serious implications for communities across the country. I urge Argus readers from Torfaen and beyond to sign the petition, which can be accessed online here:

There are also paper copies available from my office, please call 01495 740022 for details.