Friday, 31 August 2012

Is it even viable?

Is this AI's only financially viable plan?
Back in April, DCC was asked whether it could verify "That Aggregate Industries confirmed to the Council prior to the Consultation that, besides Blackhill, there are a number of other commercially viable alternative locations for the processing of material from the area at Straitgate being consulted upon." 

DCC replied that "Aggregate Industries have confirmed there are other suitable locations for the processing of material but we cannot state whether they are commercially viable. We would not expect to go into the detail of commercial viability at this stage of the process." 

This was surprising because the NPPF says “173. Pursuing sustainable development requires careful attention to viability and costs in plan-making and decision-taking. Plans should be deliverable.” DCC appraised 45 factors for each site, but commercial viability was not one of them. A site might perform best environmentally but if it does not make business sense for an operator it is not going to be deliverable.

For Straitgate to be included in the Minerals Plan, DCC would need to know that, if processing at Blackhill on the heavily protected Woodbury Common was not to be permitted beyond 2016, it would be commercially viable for Aggregate Industries to set up plant at Rockbeare or Straitgate for the relatively limited amount of sand and gravel available. Without that knowledge there would be no substance to the Council's Plan, merely wishful thinking.

Poor profit margins on sand and gravel mean an assessment of commercial viability is important. Not only for the Council to be assured of continuity of supply, but also so that local people may have a modicum of faith that the operator will afford restoration plans, or in the case of financial default another operator could be attracted to continue and restore the site.

RICS has just released "Financial viability in planning". Whilst this is more concerned with housing development, it still emphasises that "Financial viability has become an increasingly important material consideration in the planning system" and "Viability considerations should form a critical part of the evidence base behind planning policies".

To date it would seem that commercial "viability considerations" have been absent from DCC's thinking, and before going any further Aggregate Industries should be asked for assurances that if they had to finance another plant the numbers would stack up.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Why was DCC in such a hurry?

© Crown Copyright/MOD 2007
DCC recognised some time ago that airport safeguarding issues could restrict quarrying at Straitgate, and when the CAA has said that "It must be recognized that it is not possible for an aerodrome or aircraft operator to mitigate the hazard caused by water bodies and watercourses, or to prevent birds using areas of open water in the vicinity of the aerodrome" why was DCC so determined and in such a rush to select a site directly under Exeter Airport's flight path?

It's unclear who in DCC wrote Safeguarding Mineral Resources and Infrastructure in February 2011, but here it recognised that "To the north of the AONB, parts of the [Budleigh Salterton Pebble Beds] have been sterilised by existing development at West Hill and Uffculme. However, the remainder of the resource is relatively unconstrained, although local designations, groundwater considerations and airport safeguarding arrangements may provide localised constraints."

These "localised constraints" plainly didn't concern DCC when it selected Straitgate as a Preferred Site. DCC had made its mind up some time before its Development Management Control (DMC) meeting of 7 March 2012, saying "All but one of the sites in the southern area were found to have at least one ‘showstopper’ impact in the site appraisals". In all likelihood DCC had decided much earlier, since Aggregate Industries had been assured enough to expense consultants' reports and plans, made available to the Council on 27 February. But how could DCC be so sure that Straitgate was the right site when the Site Appraisal was incomplete - "Conflict with Aerodrome Safeguarding Areas" being left with "In process of checking implication with airport"?

After all this was not an insignificant detail when Straitgate and other southern sites are directly under the flight path. The CAA has made clear that "almost without exception, water developments increase the bird hazard in ways that cannot be adequately controlled. Often, they are a consequence of minerals extraction, in which case there will probably be more similar proposals that will progressively surround the aerodrome with water. Even where this is not the case, there are nearly always pre-existing water bodies with populations of waterfowl nearby. In practice, isolated ponds that will not generate waterfowl movements do not exist. Any additional water will inevitably increase a pre-existing hazard from waterfowl."

DCC sent a copy of Aggregate Industries' plans to Exeter Airport shortly after 27 February, but didn't wait for their response before voting at the DMC meeting to consult on Straitgate and rejecting the alternatives. The Airport's reply arrived 2 days later, and said that "To ensure aviation safety it is suggested that no ponds or body of water be allowed as part of this development." At this point DCC could have still postponed its consultation, considered the advice, and had a re-think. But then DCC hadn't waited for the conclusions of the Sustainability Appraisal either, which reported on the "sustainability issues relevant to each of the 21 potential quarry sites". This report was redundant in this respect by the time it was published in June, since 18 of the potential sites had already been rejected by DCC, landowners having been informed on 12 March with a very final "the appraisal work has concluded that the site within your ownership is unsuitable at the present time for mineral working due to one or more environmental constraints, and the County Council will not be considering it for inclusion in the Devon Minerals Plan."

How was DCC so certain that Straitgate, with all its water issues, could be worked dry or restored without water features? Continual pumping into watercourses would be required for the former. Importation of millions of tonnes of inert waste for the latter. DCC convinced attendees at its West Hill exhibition that landfill at Straitgate was not an option. In any case, there may not be the availability of sufficient inert waste with much now recycled, or it may not be economic with recent landfill tax changes, or even environmentally acceptable.

No - it seemed that only one thing mattered - Straitgate was owned by Aggregate Industries, and DCC assumed it was deliverable. People might have hoped that when it came to aircraft safety, the Council would have considered matters more carefully and with less haste.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Bird spotting at Blackhill Quarry

The earlier post on Birdstrike omitted a detail. The body of water pictured at Blackhill Quarry is actually called "Seagull Pond" by quarry staff, for obvious reason. The quarry is also known by local bird-spotters, particularly for breeds of gulls. The gulls in the earlier photograph have now moved - and can be found at another lagoon in the quarry, as shown.

We mention this in case Aggregate Industries or DCC are minded to say at some future point that bodies of water in quarries are cold, nutrient poor, unattractive to bird life, and would present no risk whatsoever to aircraft flying low over Straitgate on their landing approach to Exeter Airport.

Reply from DCC

Letter from Dave Black, Head of Planning and Transportation at DCC, in reply to the Letter to DCC, regarding DCC's Sustainability Appraisal (SA) first referred to in Negative impact on flight safety only "minor"?

The reply from DCC argues that since the site appraisals considered ", environmental and economic impacts, it was not considered necessary to undertake SA of the site options prior to identifying the preferred and excluded sites for consultation." Government advice is however that Strategic Environmental Assessment [SEA, a European Directive which forms part of the SA] is most effective when started as early as possible...". In DCC's case the SA report, with its conclusions on the relative environmental impacts of each site, was published some three months after the Consultation started, and did not inform the selection of the Preferred Sites, or the rejection of the alternatives, a point also made by Natural England. It is therefore unclear how DCC will be able to demonstrate that Article 2(b) of directive 2001/42/EC "the taking into account of the Environmental Report... in decision making" has been fulfilled.

DCC does not see a conflict of interest in the same person overseeing preparation of the Minerals Plan and the Sustainability Appraisal. Many local authorities however, Oxfordshire, Somerset and Wiltshire to name three, engage outside consultants to "undertake an independent Sustainability Appraisal" which helps avoid any accusation that the SA is not entirely impartial. Government advice says it is "helpful to involve people... who are not directly concerned in producing the plan or programme and can contribute expertise or a detached and independent view". It is not a "legal requirement" for the SA to be independent, but good practice when working to find the best outcome, not just the most deliverable.

DCC does however welcome any comments from the public on the SA report "... including any inaccuracies or disagreement with judgements made in the report", but otherwise has decided that the SA report "... does not warrant a wider consultation." The SA report on S7 (Straitgate) can be found in S7 and S7 appendix. Click for the Sustainability Appraisal Team contact details. Here is a list of our comments so far.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Why are mineral workers warned of the dangers of RCS but not local residents?

Respirable Crystalline Silica is invisibly fine dust generated when quarrying and processing sand and gravel. Aggregate Industries' staff at Blackhill Quarry are warned of its dangers, as are at-risk workers elsewhere.

Report on Carcinogens by the US Health Department warns "Residents near quarries and sand and gravel operations potentially are exposed to respirable crystalline silica." Another report concludes "In our study, there seems to be a risk also in groups exposed to lower levels [of respirable quartz]. There is no consensus how low an acceptable risk level ought to be."

The deposits of sand and gravel at Straitgate are made of quartzite - a crystalline form of silicon dioxide or silica. Respirable Crystalline Silica (RCS) is angular Particulate Matter less than 10μm in size (PM10) that can enter the lungs. The quarrying sector is a major producer of PM10. The Health Protection Agency advises "The distance travelled by dust emissions will depend on the particle size and on the wind speed and turbulence. Smaller dust particles will stay airborne for longer and disperse over a wider area. Strong and turbulent winds will also keep larger particles airborne for longer. Data reported from quarries indicated that the courser dust particles (>30μm) are mainly deposited within 100m of the source, intermediate particles (10-30μm) between 250 and 500m, while fine particles (<10μm) can travel up to 1 km (DoE, 1995a,b). Ultrafine particles (<2.5μm) would be expected to travel considerably further." 

RCS can be generated a number of ways (not just from processing). "Inhaling finely divided crystalline silica dust in very small quantities over time can lead to silicosis, bronchitis, or cancer, as the dust becomes lodged in the lungs and continuously irritates them, reducing lung capacities. (In the body crystalline silica particles do not dissolve over clinically relevant periods of time.) Children, asthmatics of any age, allergy sufferers, and the elderly (all of whom have reduced lung capacity) can be affected in much less time." In its most common form, chronic silicosis "Usually [results] from long-term exposure (10 years or more) to relatively low concentrations of silica dust and usually appearing 10–30 years after first exposure."

The American Lung Association writes "...public concern may be raised about potential health effects from brief exposure to airborne silica or residence in locations where prevailing winds carry silica particles from natural or industrial sites. There is little evidence to suggest that brief or casual exposure [would living near a quarry be "brief or casual"?] to low levels of crystalline silica dust produces clinically significant lung disease or other adverse health effects. Chronic simple silicosis has, however, been described after environmental exposures to silica in regions where soil silica content is high and dust storms are common."

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) advises (guidance sheets QY0 and QY2) "All RCS is hazardous". "Tell workers: that very fine quarry dust can cause silicosis, which leads to disablement and early death". The HSE adds, with regard to construction sites, "In 2006, the workplace exposure limit for RCS was reduced to 100μg/m3 and there is pressure to lower it further to 50μg/m3 as epidemiological data suggest there is no known level of exposure at which silicosis does not occur." "Whilst we are able to estimate the exposure to RCS of an individual at work from past data, little is known about the inadvertent exposure of people who are close to but not involved in the work activity". HSE measurements did however "indicate the migration of silica across sites and potentially beyond the site boundaries". As far as recorded cases go, the HSE maintains "No cases of silicosis have been documented among members of the general public in Great Britain, indicating that environmental exposures to silica dust are not sufficiently high to cause this occupational disease". However "It should also be noted that excessive long term exposures to almost any dust, are likely to lead to respiratory (breathing) problems." HSE's American equivalent, the OSHA, warns "If it’s silica, it’s not just dust".

Aggregate Industries warns about RCS, but what warnings has DCC given? Well, no mention at all of RCS. Its Sustainability Appraisal did warn "Due to a changing climate there is the potential for the impact of noise and dust on sensitive receptors to become more intense. Hotter summers will provide conditions that will produce additional dust, and people will spend more time outdoors and leave the windows of dwellings and workplaces open for longer." "There is likely to be a negative impact upon the well-being and health of the residents at Straitgate Farm. This impact, combined with those likely for low to medium sensitive properties in the vicinity, would lead to a significant negative impact during the working of minerals". Its recommendation? "Policy relating to dust could encourage screening measures and dust control/mitigation". In its current Minerals Plan DCC "...will consider the practicality and the cost of methods of environmental control such as the spraying of materials with water at suitable stages in their handling and transport, the watering of areas of the site regularly used by vehicles and the use of dust extractors." Are the phrases "could encourage" and "consider the practicality and the cost" enough? RCS is carcinogenic. Cllr. John Hart, Leader of DCC, reiterated recently "you have to extract minerals from where they were deposited" - but to the detriment of human health? DCC's slogan is, after all, "improving life for all".

How much protection would residents expect from this carcinogenic dust source? Planning4Minerals (P4M) stresses that "Prevention of dust generation is critical [for example by working the mineral wet and damping internal haul roads] - once in the open air ...the operator will have little or no control over where [dust] settling occurs." P4M expects the "use of buffer zones to isolate dust sources from surrounding communities, often incorporated into local planning policy, with distances of 250-500m typically adopted, unless there are unusual or exceptional reasons to permit a variation." However, one study "monitored silica concentrations ...near a sand and gravel facility in Central California" and found "the impact from this source was still evident, even at the furthest downwind monitor - 745 meters away". The Technical Guidance to the NPPF says "A dust assessment study should be undertaken..." and "...additional measures to control PM10 might be necessary if, within a site, the actual source of emission (e.g. the haul roads, crushers, stockpiles etc.) is within 1,000m of any residential property or other sensitive use". Dust monitoring would form part of the planning conditions for any new quarry, but the "definition of standards for dust is a particularly complex issue...there are no agreed standards or guidelines for the nuisance impacts of mineral dusts in the UK." However The Air Quality Regulations 1997 do set a statutory objective for PM10 of 50μg/m3 or less, and the Environment Agency stipulates a maximum RCS level of 0.6μg/m3 around waste sites.

So, what are the benefits for a community newly saddled with this risk of airborne carcinogenic dust? DCC says "Mineral working at an individual site may take place over a number of decades and, while this timescale may seem a burden on local communities, it does offer the opportunity to develop strong working relationships between community and mineral operator [wow, thanks!] (as well as providing a source of local employment)." Blackhill Quarry currently employs nine. What about "the Aggregate Levy Sustainability Fund for projects in communities that are affected by aggregates extraction"? Scrapped in 2011.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Has DCC properly assessed the impact of quarrying on the historic environment?

Not according to "Heritage in local plans: how to create a sound plan under the NPPF" released last week by English Heritage.

Quarrying at Straitgate Farm would not only impact the Grade II listed Devon longhouse and its setting, but also the source of water for the mediaeval fish ponds that are of central importance to the gardens at Cadhay, the Grade I listed Tudor manor house. A pre-historic track also runs through Straitgate, and a number of archaeological finds were made in the area during the construction of the A30.

Water from Straitgate at Cadhay

The historic environment did not concern DCC in the Site Appraisal of S7 (Straitgate), with the impact on Cadhay rated "Medium/Low", and bizarrely even the impact on Straitgate, of removing the agricultural setting of a 16th century farmhouse, only rated "Medium". The Sustainability Appraisal also failed to appreciate these assets, assessing only a "Minor negative impact" on the historic environment of quarrying S7.

English Heritage however say "The NPPF expects heritage assets to be conserved and enhanced for generations to come."

English Heritage advise "Sound local plans will be based on adequate up-to-date evidence about the historic environment." "This is not just an exercise in listing known sites, but of understanding their value to society (their significance), how they and the area have developed through history, their physical conservation status and needs, the contribution of their settings, scope for enhancement and their potential to contribute to the delivery of other sustainable development objectives." 

We now know that DCC's Sustainability Appraisal did not inform, as it should have, the earlier Site Appraisals, but English Heritage are clear that "The evidence base will also be of relevance to the Sustainability Appraisal which accompanies the Local Plan, helping to populate the baseline data and informing the appraisal process itself." "Where the evidence base is weak, local planning authorities may find it useful to commission research from appropriately qualified and competent experts to supplement existing information." 

English Heritage consider that "One of the core dimensions of sustainable development is the protection and enhancement of the historic environment." DCC must not be blinkered in its pursuit for a Preferred Site for sand and gravel quarrying - the County's historic assets need to be taken seriously.