FOR the past decade, villagers in Varteg have been fighting plans for opencast mining near their homes and their local school - and proposals may be back on the table once more. JOHN PHILLIPS reports.
CONTROVERSIAL plans to open a coal mine 120 metres from a primary school could be back on the table despite being rejected by a government minister.
Coal company Glamorgan Power Ltd first put forward proposals for the opencast mine near Ysgol Bryn Onnen in Varteg a decade ago.
The community fought the plans at every turn before they were rejected by Torfaen councillors in 2011.
The row rumbled on when the company lodged an appeal but Welsh minister Carl Sargeant threw it out last year.
But now campaigners face going back to square one after Glamorgan Power made a fresh request for information about the site for an environmental assessment through their agents.
The request submitted to Torfaen council is technically known as a “scoping opinion”, which is usually a precursor to the submission of a planning application.
The company’s agents, Harmers, were unavailable for comment on the quarry plans or the scoping opinion.
But under the previous plans, Glamorgan Power wished to extract 256,000 tonnes of coal about 30 metres from houses in a project that would have created an estimated 35 jobs.
The No Opencast at Varteg Hill Group, who have opposed the plans for years, are now ready to soldier on to stop the coal quarry becoming a reality.
At the heart of the dispute are guidelines which state that opencast mining should take place at least 500 metres from homes.
The campaigners stress that houses are situated just 30 metres away and the school is within a stone’s throw of the site.
Group secretary Lynda Clarkson, 50, said: “We have been around with petitions in the past and had a huge response.
“My main concern is that we will get a rehash of the old application and it’s pushed through quickly.
“We all know councils are very low on funding. It is very expensive to fight plans and services are being cut.”
The battle of Varteg does not merely hinge around set guidelines but, the campaigners say, the health of vulnerable residents including pensioners and schoolchildren.
Ms Clarkson said airborne coal particles could have a negative impact on the health of people in the vicinity of the site in particular children, who have small lungs.
This view was echoed by Blaenavon Town Council mayor Sylvia Lewis, who has been involved with the no campaign for several years.
She indicated the Glamorgan Power plans would have been viewed more favourably if they had led to significant job creation.
She said: “Obviously we are concerned. We have been part and parcel of the no campaign.
“It would affect Blaenavon quite substantially.
“If there were going to be lots of jobs we would stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
Ysgol Bryn Onnen head teacher Ryan Parry, 42, said yesterday: “We remain firmly opposed to the open cast as we have been in previous years.
“Members of the school governing body are very proactive in drumming support to ensure the application is a failed one.
“How many times to they need to be told? It is the second time it has been refused. It will not be third time lucky for them.
“When I started in 2009, I suddenly found myself not just as the head teacher of a school but in the middle of all this, a minefield.
“It is a very good school we have here. You would think the school is in the middle of the countryside.
“To have opencast mining would desecrate all of that. It would be hideous and pointless.
“It is not just the health of children but also the happiness and education of children we are talking about.
“It could affect the stability of the school. It could disturb everything that is good about the school.
“It could lead to distraction, pollution and hearing disruption and our ability to access the outdoors.”
But despite the potential harm to the health of children, Ysgol Bryn Onnen parent Jackie Gwillim, 43, said she did not believe Glamorgan Power could circumvent the 500 metre guideline.
The mum of three said: “I can’t see how they could get through. You’ve got the 500 metre guideline. You can’t get away from that.
“To me it’s such a waste of money and resources.”
At the other end of the spectrum, other residents in Varteg feel the development could help rejuvenate the village and clear several slag heaps near their homes.
Retired coal board worker Ray Williams, 78, indicated the benefits would outweigh the potential health risks, arguing that coal extraction was now heavily regulated.
He said: “We have got nothing in the village.
“In this day and age opencast mining is limited.
“You cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs.”
Retired Varteg builder John Morgan also backs opencast mining, saying the development could help clean up the vicinity of his home.
Mr Morgan, of Pembroke Terrace, said: “The landscape at the back of my house is mounds of waste from surface scratch mining and two or three grey coal slag heaps often used by motorcyclists.
“I would like to see them cleaned up and brought back to some sort of use.”
Former Ysgol Bryn Onnen governor, Tony Kinsella, has fought the plans since they were first formulated in 2004.
He said the no campaign had stood against Glamorgan Power “at every turn” before the plans rejected by Torfaen councillors in 2011.
The no campaign group founding member said people held demonstrations, meetings, distributed flyers and lobbied, which caused delays in the plans reaching the full council.
He said an application first went to Torfaen planning in 2004 but the plans were altered several times and in 2011 were turned down at a full council meeting by a majority of 43 to 1.
The company then lodged an appeal turned down by the minister for housing and regeneration Carl Sargeant in November.
Glamorgan Power could have gone for a judicial review in the High Court but this option lapsed in January this year, Mr Kinsella said.
He acknowledged the Varteg campaigners could now be back to “square one” if the company submitted new plans but vowed to fight on.
Mr Kinsella, 73, of Garndiffaith, said: “The community said no. Torfaen borough said no. The community council said no. The Welsh government said no. Which part of no do they not understand?
“If you want to protect children and the vulnerable in the community you do battle, whatever it takes.
“It doesn’t matter how long it goes on.”
2004: Glamorgan Power unveils plans to open an opencast mine in Varteg
Opponents of the plans drum up support through gatherings which cause the plans to be altered on several occasions
2009: The No Opencast at Varteg Hill Group is officially formed
2011: Torfaen councillors turn down the opencast mining plans by a majority of 43 to 1 but an appeal is subsequently lodged
2013: Welsh minister for environment and sustainable development John Griffiths announces he is minded to approve the development but his successor Carl Sargeant later dismisses the appeal submitted by Glamorgan Power
2014: Torfaen council confirms that Glamorgan Power’s agents Harmers have requested a scoping opinion for information to be provided for an environmental assessment
2014: Torfaen council confirms that Glamorgan Power’s agents Harmers have requested a scoping opinion for information to be provide for an environmental assessment