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July 10, 2009

Protesters pitch camp and dig in for long haul

A proposal by Scottish Coal for yet another open cast coal mine in the Douglas Valley area has proved to be one proposal too many for the local community.  Despite 650 letters of protest citing health concerns and fears for the inevitable damage to an area of great natural beauty, the project was approved by planners earlier this year. Locals have been joined by activists from across the UK in their protest camp

At one end of the track a gate barricaded with chicken wire, tree branches and padlocks is adorned with skull-and-crossbone flags, while at the other a makeshift barrier sees wooden pallets fashioned to stop any vehicle in its tracks.

In between a man laden with blue rope is scaling a tree, while the thudding of hammering interrupts the soft sounds of a guitar and the smoke of a campfire wafts up through the trees.

Around 40 activists from across the UK gathered on Friday to help a South Lanarkshire community who have lost the fight against another open-cast pit in an area of Scotland already.

The Mainshill Solidarity Group say they will stay at the 340-acre beauty spot near the village of Douglas for as long as it takes for the project to be called off, either by the landowner, operator Scottish Coal or government ministers

The project in the Douglas Valley was approved by South Lanarkshire Council planners in February and by Scottish ministers in April – despite 650 letters of protest listing health issues, the amount of open-casting already going on close by, the site’s proximity to homes and the loss of the mostly wooded area which is a wildlife haven.

The proposals by Scottish Coal will create 100 new jobs and involve surface mining some 1.7m tonnes of coal and 160,000 tonnes of fireclay over a five-year period.

Environmental protestors say the plans contravened the Scottish Government planning policy document SPP16, which dictates that no community should suffer more than 10 years of continuous disruption due to this type of mining.

When guidelines were first drawn up, the then Scottish Executive said there should be a presumption against the digging of open-cast mines in areas blighted by old mines.

Scottish Coal, supported by the STUC, fought the policy then, saying it would jeopardise Scottish energy jobs and the future of home-produced coal.

One protester, Katie Smith, 25, from Glasgow, said: “We are building tree houses and structures which will mean we can’t be evicted. One of the main reasons we are here is to support the local community. We feel they are being bullied. We are also here for environmental reasons. A lot of the activists are climate change campaigners. We want coal to be left in the ground and not burned because we are concerned about our future and the future of our children.”

The land is owned by The Earl of Home, chairman of the Coutts bank and the son of former prime minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home.

From the entrance to the camp, it is possible to see two existing open-cast mines, Poniel and Broken Cross, across the valley.

Another, Glentaggart, is just down the road and the area also has two sand-and-gravel pits, a peat extraction site and three old coal bings.

Douglas residents have been delivering supplies of everything from water to chocolate cake to the group all weekend.

Surveyor Jim Douglas, 56, said: “I have done everything I can possibly do for them. We are surrounded by open-casts and it’s the health issues as well. This area has one of the highest cancer rates in the whole of Scotland.”

Tommy Cronin, 58, said: “It’s all about money. I grew up here and it’s always been forestry. They say they will restore it but how long will it take to be back to this?”

Locals have also dismissed the argument that another mine will create much-needed jobs, as they say staff will simply be moved there from other sites which will wind down.

But before planning permission was granted, Iain Urquhart, the council’s Executive Director for Enterprise Resources, said the economic benefits associated with the development “should be supported” through the planning system.Following an environmental assessment he concluded: “There will be no significant adverse effects.”

He added: “It is recognised that there is a strong local opinion in respect of the proposal and this is evident through the substantial number of objections received.

“While in no way dismissing these concerns it is considered this site can be developed without significantly adversely affecting communities or the environment.”

The protesters were expecting a visit from the police this morning and were told to expect eviction.

Protester Ross Jones, 23, from Edinburgh said: “We are not sure what is going to happen. I can’t see how any of the police in Scotland will be equipped to deal with it. They will have to bring up the special team from Wales.”

As well as being able to scale the trees, the group is armed with what they call lock-on tubes’ – concrete and glass-fibre creations which let protesters link arms inside a thick casing which cannot easily be broken.

The site has also become a local flashpoint in the Climate Change Bill debate.

Holyrood ministers will decide on Wednesday whether to back the bill, which would see Scotland lead the way in a pledge to protect the planet.