Digging for Britain: The return of the mining industry
In the boot of his car, mining expert Jeff Harrison carries a chunk of the metal that could earn him a fortune. The dirty-looking boulder doesn’t seem particularly exciting, but as I pick it up, its owner urges me to look a little closer.
“Can you see the black bits?” he asks excitedly as I start to crumple under its weight. “That’s tungsten. Soon we’ll be taking something like £140m of this from Devon every year.”
After spending a good deal of his working life abroad, in Tanzania and Australia, Harrison is now one of many miners who has been able to come home to Britain to begin work on new mines. He is UK operations manager for Wolf Minerals, an Australian company that is about to carve a hole in Devon big enough to swallow up more than 100,000 double decker buses.
Mining is an industry many of us thought was long dead in Britain. But as countries such as India and China gulp down larger and larger quantities of the raw materials needed to sustain their voracious pace of development, the British mining industry is flickering back to life.
“As with a lot of metals in recent years, the price of tungsten has gone boom, boom, boom,” Harrison adds. “For quite a few years there wasn’t a lot of exploration, which means there was no new mining. But when the price takes off it starts up again and, at the same time, work begins on those sites that were once considered uneconomic.”
Harrison’s company has already started preliminary work on a 16 million cubic metre opencast mine in the gently rolling, green and pleasant countryside near Hemerdon, a tiny town near the border of Devon and Cornwall. Sporting a charming pub called The Miners Arms, a village hall and not a lot else, Hemerdon looks more like the sort of place where old ladies go around solving murders than the epicentre of a British mining resurgence.
Yet return in five years time and this quiet town will have new roads, more than 250 highly-paid workers digging away nearby, and an injection of cash into the local economy that hasn’t been matched since the glory days of the Victorian mining era.
At the moment, Hemerdon mine is an unloved piece of scrubland, used only by quad-bike riders. On an abandoned wooden outbuilding, graffiti artists have scrawled various doodles and tags. Harrison and Wolf Minerals have big plans for this unprepossessing site, which happens to contain the world’s fourth largest tungsten deposit.
“People see mining companies as the bad boys, but that’s not the case,” he insists. “We want to give as many jobs to local people as possible and, don’t forget, mining has come on a long way. People needn’t be scared of mining near populated areas.
"We want people to come and see how we have run this mine, created jobs and helped the local community by putting our hands in our pocket for schools or elderly people. If they see that, perhaps it will be a catalyst [for other mining operations in the UK].”
Mining is already bringing money and jobs to areas that sorely need both. As well as the jobs expected to come to Hemerdon in 2014, the year the mine is predicted to open, thousands more are set to be created across Britain as other mining operations start up, often using old deposits that were abandoned when they became economically unviable.
In Cornwall, work is underway to reopen a disused tin mine at South Crofty, a very deep pit that will also yield copper. Tin has been mined for millennia in Cornwall, and the 250 jobs the new business will create are sorely needed in the local area.
Preliminary prospecting work has begun on the Parys Mountain copper mine in Wales, which has been worked since the Bronze Age and was once the largest copper-producing site in the world. There are plans to open a coal mine in Port Talbot, to feed a nearby steel plant operated by Tata Steel, and opencast mining has begun at the Tower Colliery in Hirwaun, which was once the site of the oldest continuously worked deep mine in Britain. It was due to close in 1995 but was bought by its workers and then mined until 2008, when operations were once again stopped.
In Scotland, a gold mine is being worked at Tyndrum, and a huge potash pit is being planned for North Yorkshire, which will produce the material needed to make fertiliser – a crucial commodity as the British population climbs ever higher.
These mines are opening due to galloping demand among the BRIC nations of Brazil, Russia, India and China. The BRICs need massive amounts of commodities like copper, which is used to build communications infrastructure, and iron so they can manufacture enough steel to maintain their frenetic pace of construction. Tin is used in the world’s electronics industry, gold is always in demand during a recession and tungsten is required to make the sharp cutting blades that are vital to many industries.
There is also a geopolitical war raging around some of these materials. Planning permission for Hemerdon was won back in 1986 until China “played silly buggers” with tungsten prices, according to Harrison. Back in the 1980s, they dumped a huge amount of the metal on to the world market, along with Russia, causing prices to drop to around £3,100 a tonne.
The price didn’t recover until well into the 21st century but has now soared by five times to about £15,500 a tonne. A quick look around the site of the Hemerdon mine shows clear evidence of this power play. Inside a group of rotting, dilapidated wooden buildings lies hundreds of boxes of samples, dug out of the ground in the late 1980s to assess how much tungsten was present.
Harrison adds: “There is real concern about China because no one knows whether they will continue to export commodities or keep most to themselves. They are also getting cute to the fact that if you starve the market, prices go up. With both these things in mind, a lot of smelters in the western world are looking for supplies from countries which are politically safe and secure.”
Two companies from Germany and America have already agreed to buy 80 per cent of the Hemerdon tungsten for at least the first five years of production, reflecting a growing western interest in shoring up supply chains.
China possesses the largest deposits of many substances key to manufacturing modern consumer products, and there’s simply no telling whether they will continue to share these commodities with the rest of the world.
Already this year, China has been accused of “resource nationalism” and was reported to the World Trade Organisation over its bullish tactics in exporting rare earth metals – a group of metals vital to the manufacture of high-tech gear like computers and even precision-guided missiles.
To illustrate the threat to supplies of these vital substances, the British Geological Survey has drawn up a “risk list” that “gives a quick and simple indication of the relative risk to the supply of chemical elements, which we need to maintain our economy and lifestyle”. Tungsten is number four on the list and, tellingly, China is the leading producer of 28 of the 52 elements on the list – including tungsten.
Paul Lusty, senior economic geologist at the BGS, says: “There is significant global interest in security of supply of metals, as regions such as Europe are highly dependent on imports for many raw materials.”
In the town of Hemerdon, these global concerns are a world away. Behind the bar of The Miners Arms, there is another slab of tungsten. But whenever the barman brandishes his own precious rock, it is to rail against the mining company – not to hymn its virtues. “The people from Wolf are always leaving their cars in our car park, but they don’t often buy a drink,” he complains.
Hemerdon, like so much of the area, has a rich mining history and produced aluminium, arsenic and tin until the second world war. These industries employed a great number of locals. Now nearby residents are unsure who is going to get the jobs, although Wolf Minerals say they are committed to giving work to people from the nearby area.
For some the news has already been bad. Near the mine sit 14 beautiful 19th century houses that are all to be demolished by Wolf. Although 12 of the residents have agreed to sell up, two have so far refused – although they will be legally compelled eventually.
One of them, a man who does not wish to give his name for fear of “having 25 per cent slashed off the amount of money they’ll give me”, says: “It’s all very well giving us market price for another house, but what if there’s no other house I like as much?”
Considering that Margaret Thatcher precipitated wholesale closure of British mining, it is ironic that it is returning under a Tory-led government. Back in the Silver Jubilee of 1977, there was a big advertising push that claimed the nation needed more miners.
The industry looked as if it was on the up, but in 1984 the miners’ strike began and Britain’s coal-mining sector slumped into a death spiral. The figures are striking. In 1947, six years before the Queen’s coronation, 950 coal mines operated in the UK. During the 1960s, the total number of people working in mining nosedived from 750,000 to 320,000. Flash-forward to 1984 and there were just 170 coalmines. Now there are just 39, according to the UK Coal Authority.
In some communities, though, the memory of mining is still vivid. In Wales, the miner is a heroic figure, a masculine archetype every bit as revered as the fireman is in New York City. A statue of a miner made by Robert Thomas stands on Queen Street in the centre of Cardiff, providing a permanent reminder of the country’s industrial past. Scattered across the Valleys, which must have looked like Tolkien’s Mordor when the mines were working, are the remains of old equipment.
Abandoned or fossilised as museum pieces, great wheels or towers rust away, the relics of a bygone age when coal was king and every man followed his father down the mines. But as well as these reminders, almost every town in the Valleys, once the centre of Welsh coal mining, has a monument commemorating men who died deep underground. The resurgent mining industry is every bit as dangerous as it was in the past.
Last September, the old dream of coal mining turned into a modern nightmare when four men lost their lives at the Gleision Colliery in the Swansea Valley after the mine flooded with water. Three men escaped, including Daniel Powell, 26, who managed to clamber to safety while his father David drowned.
For the close-knit communities where these men live, it was a brutal blow. Over two grim days and one long night, the families gathered in a community hall in Rhos to await news of the rescue operation. One by one their hopes of seeing their loved ones alive were dashed, as divers searched through the black, muddy water and found one body after another. The Reverend Martyn Perry, vicar of Cilybebyll Church, which is near the colliery, was there to comfort the families as the horrifying news came in.
Rev Perry, whose own father and grandfather worked in the mines, says: “The whole thing affected the community in a massive way. It was so traumatic to everybody. Most families have members who were involved in mining in the past and everyone knows someone who had an accident or was killed. The recent tragedy brought these memories back to the surface, reopened the wounds again and made them fresh. It was a horrific moment for everyone involved.”
In an age of health and safety, it is almost impossible to imagine an industry where death can happen so easily. But for the communities defined by mining, this was – and still is – an everyday reality. They have a deep connection with the mines, but it remains to be seen how the rest of the UK will react to the new plans.
The money-men know there’s a place in Britain for mining, yet it is only when the new pits are up and running that we will really know what this industry looks like in the modern age. There are likely to be objections on safety and environmental grounds, even though it’s clear we need to secure these deposits in order to compete with China or India. Mining is embedded in British people’s collective memories. Will it be our future too?