Direct action against coal in Scotland

Down to Earth No.85-86, August 2010

DTE asked climate justice activist Mark Lloyd about coal and coal activism in Scotland...and his thoughts on reading JATAM's Deadly Coal report.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about the coal operation targeted by activists in Lanarkshire: what are the main issues that local people are concerned with there?

Scottish Coal plans to develop the 340 acre Mainshill Wood into an open cast coal mine. This will involve extracting around 1.7 million tonnes of coal and 160,000 tonnes of fireclay over a five year period.

Proposals to mine the area were made public in 2008, and met intense local opposition. Out of around 1000 people in the nearby village of Douglas, 650 wrote letters of objection to the planning application.

However, coal is a profitable business. ScottishPower and Scottish Coal recently signed the largest coal contract in Scottish history. Under the five-year deal, likely to be worth up to GBP700 million, Scottish Coal will supply fuel to ScottishPower's Longannet power station in Fife.

Scottish Coal operates nine other open-cast mines across the central belt of Scotland and currently mines about four million tonnes a year. It supplies other power companies, including British Energy, Drax Power and Eon.

Given these kinds of figures it's no surprise that Scottish Coal had the spare cash to pay the local Labour MP Jim Hood a 'retainer' of GBP625 per month for working zero hours. And given this kind of cosy relationship between the corporations and the politicians, it is no surprise that local opposition went ignored.

The communities surrounding the planned mine have already been living with open-cast mines for many years, and as a consequence suffering increased rates of cancer and diseases of the heart, lungs and kidneys. The surrounding roads are made very dangerous by heavy goods vehicles thundering along at high speed day and night. The area has one of the highest rates of cancer in Europe.

A protest camp was set up in Mainshill Wood in solidarity with local campaigners, but was also motivated by concerns about climate change; 1.7 million tonnes of coal extracted means 3.1 million tonnes of CO2 released into the atmosphere.

Q: How do the Lanarkshire operations fit into the UK picture as a whole?

In the past 18 months 14 companies have applied to dig nearly 60 million tonnes of coal from 58 new or enlarged open-cast mines in the UK. Scotland will bear the brunt of the expansion, according to Coal Action Scotland. Currently 11 mines produce about 5m tonnes of coal a year. A further 27 mines could extract a total of 22m tonnes of coal over just a few years. Thirteen of the 27 have already been approved and the rest are awaiting planning decisions.

Q: What about jobs? Is the local community involved in the workforce? Are there any positive aspects of this operation as far as local people are concerned?

Scottish Coal claim that 93 jobs will be created by the new mine at Mainshill. However these aren't new jobs - it will simply involve people being transferred from existing mines. There are no other benefits to the community from another open-cast mine in the area.

Q: As far as you know, what was the land taken over for the mine used for before? How did the company acquire the land for the mining?

Lord Home owns the land and has brokered a deal whereby Scottish Coal dig his patch for a hefty sum, as yet undisclosed. Lord Home is Chairman of Coutts & Co., which is the private banking arm of RBS, which banks for Scottish Coal. He's the son of the former Conservative Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home, he went to school at Eton and is now a Conservative peer. He is also the current President of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation.

Previously the land was used for commercial forestry, although it had a few mature, ancient trees and there are reports of bats, otters, badgers and water voles. The proposed site is also within the designated Douglas Water Area of Great Landscape Value (AGLV).

Q: What would people like to happen in future?

From general conversations I had with local people, they would like the area to be left as it is. There is a large windfarm nearby and one person I spoke to felt that this was a much more positive use of the local countryside.

There are many other uses for the spectacular countryside around Lanarkshire such as tourism or sustainable forestry.

Q. What specific action were you involved in?

I was involved in a blockade of the rail depot at Ravenstruther, where coal from the nearby open-cast mines is loaded onto trains in order to be transported to coal-fired power stations. We shut down the depot for one day. The depot provides coal from 5 local open cast-sites to many of the coal-fired power stations throughout the UK.

The demonstration was in support of the Lanarkshire communities who are opposing new open-cast mines. We were there to send a clear message that we don't want parts of Scotland such as South Lanarkshire to become the most heavily mined areas in Europe, as they will be if permission is granted for all the new open-cast coal mines currently being proposed. Direct action is not just the only avenue left open, it is also an effective one.

Q: What actually happened at the protest?

Ten of us peacefully blockaded the depot; two people climbed up onto the conveyor belt that loaded the coal onto the trains, and hung a banner saying 'No new coal'. Two others locked themselves to the front gates which were used to provide access to lorries arriving to load up the trains. When the workers arrived at the site, it was my job to talk to them - explaining that this was a peaceful protest against coal expansion in the area. I also talked to media and liaised with the police.

Unfortunately the foreman of the site became aggressive and tried to force the gates open. As this would have broken the necks of the people 'locked onto the gates' I put my arm out to stop him. When the police arrived later, I was arrested for assault - which I deny. Everyone else was arrested for 'breach of the peace'.

Q: How has the company reacted to your protest? Did you get any other responses (positive or negative)?

The company estimated that 6,380 tonnes of coal were stopped from being loaded, equivalent to 11,675,400 kg CO2 released into the atmosphere. The action stopped three coal trains from being loaded and cost Scottish Coal some GBP200,000.

There has been no other response from the company.

Protesters at the camp were very warmly welcomed by the local people, who have been fighting this development and other mines in the area for many years. Local people provided food and 'beeped' their horns in support. Many local people came to the camp and talked with the protesters and took part in many of the activities and workshops.

Q: From reading JATAM's Deadly Coal report, can you see any similarities between the situation in Scotland and Kalimantan and how local communities and activists are responding?

There are many similarities between coal extraction in Scotland and Kalimantan - although I would say that the scale means that the impact in Scotland is only a fraction of the effects felt in Kalimantan. The land in Scotland is already owned by an elite - so there is no need to impose land policies, but the corruption of the planning process looks similar to the widescale corruption by officials in Kalimantan.

The economic benefits of the coal extraction do not stay in the community, there is degradation of the local biodiversity and impacts on local people's health (see coal health study, below) - but again, not on the scale that is apparent in Kalimantan.

Scotland has agreed to cut its emissions by 80% by 2050 - but is still pushing ahead with expansion of coal extraction and projects such as Mainshill.

Both Kalimantan and Scotland demonstrate a system that is blindly destroying our world for energy and profit without the consent people or communities that are directly affected.



Contacts and resources for further information:

Coal Health Study See also
Douglas Community Council
Mainshill Solidarity Camp

Coal Action Scotland
No New Coal
Earth First! Action Reports
Coal Action Network