Tuesday, 26 March 2013

"Breach of legitimate expectation"

That's how it can be with mineral companies. Planning permission gets turned down for a 2 million tonne sand and gravel quarry, after NHS Fife objected with concerns that "residents living nearby, particularly children, could be harmed by dust emissions...", and the lawyers are wheeled out with claims of "breach of legitimate expectation" and the like.
Wright, Johnston and Mackenzie said their clients were “extremely concerned” to note considerable weight appeared to have been attached to the submissions by NHS Fife… “Their involvement in this application was surprising to say the least”
Surprising? What - that councillors should listen to NHS advice about the risk to public health? Or was WJM not made aware of the dangers of quarry dust? The small matter of which its client, Laird Aggregates, is legally required to advise its workers. Microscopic (<10μm) silica particles can travel up to 1km. Once inhaled into the lungs, the particles are there for life.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Holcim and human rights

The focus may be on Aggregate Industries, but what of Holcim - AI's parent company and the ultimate owner of Straitgate Farm? What sort of neighbour and employer has the world's second largest cement producer been to communities across the world?

Aargauische Portlandcementfabrik Holderbank-Wildegg originated in 1912. In 2001 it changed its name from Holderbank to Holcim.

Holderbank/Holcim has often been heavily criticised on a variety of issues: because of its links to the apartheid regime in South Africa, because of repeated violations of competition laws, because of its noted unwillingness to work with unions and because of environmental problems caused by its cement factories... The decision to rename the group Holcim was in response to the desire for a fresh start for the cement multinational, whose image had been tarnished by a series of scandals.

And yet in 2012 Holcim was still attracting negative attention. MultiWatch, a Swiss-based coalition of aid agencies, non-governmental organisations, political parties, workers unions, church groups and others, that monitors Swiss multinationals for human rights violations, published a critical book on Holcim. The company responded:
MultiWatch has published a book ("Zementierte Profite, verwässerte Nachhaltigkeit") [Cement profits - Diluted sustainability] about Holcim on the occasion of the company’s centennial. The key focus is the alleged discrepancy between expectations and reality in the work of Holcim in India, Latin America and South Africa. MultiWatch accuses Holcim of unjust wages, violation of trade union rights, and destruction of environment and habitat. Holcim was not given any chance to comment prior to publication. In view of the serious character of some of these allegations, we regret this very much. If such a dialogue had taken place, the half-truths, mistakes and distortions the book contains could have been avoided. Holcim is committed to sustainable development. Holcim has high standards, as demanded in the book, and rightly so we are measured against them. We do not claim never to make mistakes, but we endeavour to give our best and, where necessary, to take corrective measures.
Despite Holcim's assertions, MultiWatch has a Holcim Manifesto and online petition, and claims:
Repeatedly we find violations of Labor and Trade Union rights in Holcim's plants worldwide. We discover various occupational diseases suffered by Holcim’s employees and residents living near Holcim’s plants. We observe ecological devastation, even as the decisions of indigenous populations and other communities affected by Holcim are disregarded... In many parts of the world, there are employees, populations affected by Holcim’s activities, and civil society groups in solidarity with them, who are united in their protest against Holcim’s practices. These protests shall continue until Holcim keeps the promises the management has given.
But the claims are not just by MultiWatch. Last year Holcim was accused of "flouting OECD guidelines" on workers' rights at its plants in India by trade union PCSS. It was backed by Swiss unions UNIA, ICEM, BWI and solidarity organisation Solifonds. Demonstrations were held. BWI claimed "details of the case are shocking and include the worst examples of workers’ rights violations around the world". Earlier this year, five workers died in an accident at one of Holcim's plants in India.

And it's not just India. Holcim in Latin America is a series of damning case studies by Friends of the Earth, who brought "a case against Holcim exposing just how the company violates the human rights and devastates the livelihoods of local communities".
While Holcim floods international forums and the press with propaganda about the virtues of their activities, the inhabitants of Apaxco Atotonilco continue the fight to expose the underlying environmental conflicts and impacts on human and environmental health...
Meanwhile "U.S. plants have been fined repeatedly for environmental violations": A Holcim cement plant "emitted over 2 million pounds of toxic chemicals in 2006". In 2012 Holcim paid a fine for an alleged unauthorised groundwater discharge, only three years after a $2.75 million penalty "the largest ever assessed to a nationwide ready-mix concrete company for storm water violations under the Clean Water Act" at 23 AI facilities in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

And even today, a headline "Revealed: How Holcim Paid For Sri Lanka Shares In Dubai", alleges: 
One of the larger corporate takeover transactions in Sri Lanka was more remarkable for the way in which the foreign company paid significant sums out of Sri Lanka, in contravention of the exchange control rules at the time. The full impunity and extent with which Holcim ignored Sri Lanka’s laws can today be revealed. A source close to the transaction said, “The scale of impunity with which this Swiss company – from the land of independence, cuckoo clocks and banking secrecy – treated our laws beggars belief. Would they do this in their country?”
What's all this got to do with Straitgate? Nobody is suggesting that a sand and gravel quarry would be as environmentally damaging as a cement plant. Or that AI's staff here are treated like Holcim's in India. But it raises questions over the integrity of AI's owner, and any environmental or sustainability claims. Mostly it highlights the fact that any struggle we have here with AI pales into insignificance when compared with the struggle of others in other parts of the world, with other parts of the Holcim machine. However, this passage from Friends of the Earth International, in connection with its campaign in Latin America, could in time resonate with people in East Devon:
When open pit mining of construction material commences near a community, it’s just a matter of time before people begin to feel the consequences of such an activity which generates such high quantities of pollutants. Although not as catastrophic as metallic mining, alluvial mining implies the degradation of landscapes and aquifers, increased air pollution, ground instability and the irreversible loss of diverse environmental values. All these effects have significant impacts on the health and welfare of affected populations.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

AI's trade body complains again

There's really no pleasing some people. Whilst the NPPF has moved the odds firmly in favour of development, that's still not enough for the Mineral Products Association. The trade body that represents companies controlling 90% of UK aggregate production and "helps secure greater weight for minerals in planning" - as if Holcim et al. can't stand up for themselves - now complains that the NPPF is not delivering for them, and says the situation is becoming "critical". Specifically, with local authorities failing to produce up-to-date plans, "great uncertainty has been created for mineral developers, which is undermining investment for the medium and long term". Apparently "MPA members are saying that the last thing that they want to do at the moment is engage with the planning system and submit applications" - "too expensive and too risky".

Which sounds tragic, but in the real world, Aggregate Industries hasn't been put off its stride in carrying out preliminary work towards an application to quarry Straitgate Farm.

The MPA calls to "re-establish the primacy of the planning system over the environmental permitting system which should enable and support democratically determined land use decisions", predictably confirming that, to the MPA and its members, the environment - where people, amongst others, inconveniently live - is of secondary concern.

It grumbles that LAAs are "inconsistent" and "the thrust is erring towards provision of less sites for future mineral extraction", which does show that some authorities are seeing sense and recognising the long-term decline of primary aggregate consumption.

The MPA bemoans that "replenishment rates for aggregates [are] continuing to languish at around 60%" of production, but BDS who monitor these things estimates that nationally 70% of sand and gravel was replaced - continuing a "trend which has occurred over many years". And has there been any shortage of gravel? Any resultant increases in prices? No - replenishment rates are low because demand has been falling for years, and operators haven't needed any more reserves.

And the MPA does admit that current reserves are adequate, but, not surprisingly, talks up the future supply its members will need for "the planned upturn in demand in 2014 and beyond". Of course, when the MPA says "planned" it really means "forecast", or "hoped for", or "failing that year, the year after". Because, in truth, no-one knows. Some construction forecasters are showing a decline for 2014, some say that construction has "10 more years of pain".

Trade associations say what suit them. The British Aggregates Association, "the recognised voice of independent quarry operators", in its recent plea to George Osborne to scrap the Aggregates Levy, lamented that the sector "has operated at 40% below the pre-recession output levels for over 5 years with little or no indication of any improvement in the foreseeable future" - in direct contrast with the MPA's "planned upturn".

Plainly the MPA's duty is to its members who fund its overheads - no-one else, and what it says should be interpreted with this in mind. As Norman Baker MP said last week, "It's no great surprise that the asphalt industry thinks we need to spend more money on asphalt".

Friday, 15 March 2013

Two quarrying proposals without any objections at all

Minerals can only be quarried where they are found. But, unlike Straitgate Farm, some locations are obviously more acceptable than others, and some raise no objection at all.

Tynes Quarry on the North Cornwall coast is such an example. Cornish Stone Products has a "long-term plan of development on a small scale". Set to be reopened, the operation will support about six people, involves no blasting and "the stone extracted would be mainly for hedging and facing". In recommending approval, the planning officer reported that "the previous history of the site as an active quarry is a material planning consideration". "A wetland area would be created at the western end of the site as ecological mitigation" and "the nearest homes are some distance from the site and there have been no objections from them".

Another example, "Duntilland Quarry is one of the largest mainland hard rock quarries in Scotland" and in 2010 Aggregate Industries applied for, and in 2011 secured, "a 43Mt consent on a 165ha site extending the life of the quarry until 2049". Not one objection was received. AI's Estates Manager for Scotland, wrote in Mineral Planning "Aggregate Industries found that the key to manoeuvring a major minerals application smoothly through the planning process was a great deal of public consultation and sensitivity to the environment".

Which is how it should be. He added "the consultation addressed many issues either through events or one-to-one meetings and no objections or negative representations were made to the application". It all sounds great. But why did it go so well? And were there really no "negative representations"?

It helped that the application was for an extension to an existing quarry, directly adjacent to and north of the M8 motorway, with the nearest communities to the south of the M8. It helped that AI visited "neighbouring residents and businesses to discuss the proposed extension ensuring all parties were aware of and able to participate in the planning process." But the main reason for the lack of objections was probably because, as AI's planning documentation makes clear, "the proposed quarry extension is in an isolated location, several kilometres from the nearest settlement or village".

Regarding the claim of no "negative representations", Salsburgh Community Council did in fact make nine pages of "observations" on dust, PM10s, HGVs, visual impact, ancient monuments and more, but submitted no formal objection. 

In fact, for an application proposing 39 more years of hard rock quarrying, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, only six people attended "a well-advertised consultation event", two of which were from North Lanarkshire Council. If DCC's West Hill drop-in event last year is anything to go by, any event AI organises, in connection with quarrying at Straitgate Farm, could expect hundreds. For the multitude of reasons raised by the Environment Agency, Natural England, Exeter Airport and local people, Straitgate Farm is plainly not the right location.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

"Two fingers" to the generosity of the community

A reader has highlighted yet another case where restoration plans for an Aggregate Industries' quarry have gone awry - this time in Uttoxeter. It's not landfill that has been proposed, but a wind turbine 78m tall and 350m from the nearest home.

According to Uttoxeter Wind Turbine Action Group, "the land was promised as a nature reserve, sports pitches and a waterside haven". AI wanted a turbine instead because, as its director of sustainable construction said, "Ultimately we all have the same goal – preservation of the countryside". (Yes, you read that correctly.)

The area's MP accused AI of "clearly putting profit ahead of the local community":
This company has expected local residents in Uttoxeter to put up with the disturbance of quarrying, such as noise, dust and traffic that comes with it for many years in the understanding that they would return the land as a community facility that was restored to its former beauty. The fact they now want to erect an industrial scale wind turbine that will blight the landscape for years to come sticks two fingers up to the good will and the generosity of the community.
I would issue a warning to any residents in Staffordshire, or elsewhere in the country that if they have a quarry run by Aggregate Industries, there is a chance that any time now they will be faced with an application for a wind turbine. I don’t think Aggregate Industries should underestimate the damage it is doing to its reputation and the relationship it has with the communities around its sites.
The application was turned down last month by Staffordshire County Council. AI said “We think the grounds for an appeal are compelling – and this is something that we’re now reviewing.”

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Whilst local people pay the price for quarrying, some people really do benefit

Figures released for the construction industry on Monday showed output falling at its fastest rate in more than three years. Prospects for the industry looked no brighter the next day when the FT reported that infrastructure projects had stalled, and government plans to sell off trunk roads on motorways on long leases to attract billions of pounds in private money - an idea viewed by many as "fatally flawed" - were in "disarray". On the same day, Jersey-registered Breedon Aggregates, "the largest independent aggregates business in the UK after the five global majors", released its financial results in what Peter Tom CBE, its Executive Chairman, called "the worst trading conditions I can remember in my 50 years in this industry".

But Peter Tom himself can cope with the downturn. Whilst local people pay the price for quarrying in their community, and Breedon itself admits that "its activities and operations have a significant impact on the wider social, environmental and economic well-being of the areas in which we operate", some people make a good living from quarries - Peter Tom more than most. Peter Tom oversaw the formation of Aggregate Industries, and was its Chief Executive until Holcim bought it in 2005 for £1.8 billion, valuing the Tom family stake at £29m.

He had "joined what was then his grandfather's quarrying business in Leicestershire. His grandfather had started quarrying in Cornwall but when he sold the Cornish operation..., he moved to Leicestershire to buy Bardon Hill quarry in 1948. [Peter] Tom assumed the reins of the firm from his father in 1985." Now at Breedon Aggregates, where he has a 5% stake worth close to £8m, the strategy "is to grow via consolidation of the heavyside building materials sector". Quarrying has been good for Peter Tom and family, worth an estimated £40m. "I've been in the industry since the age of 16 and enjoy what I do". But then Peter Tom doesn't live next door to any of Breedon's "27 quarries, 18 asphalt plants and 40 ready-mixed concrete and mortar plants"; he lives in Guernsey.

And he's unlikely to be the only aggregates boss missing out on the 'health benefits' of next-to-a-quarry-living. In the case of AI, if its bosses are so keen for a quarry at Straitgate Farm, then let them move here; there's no shortage of houses for sale. It's a great place to live - at least, it was until…

Straitgate groundwater measurements

Initial groundwater measurements taken on 25 January for AI's six piezometers have been supplied and range from 0.17m to 7.65m of water. Although the piezometers are in different positions to the 1990 drillings, the measurements approximate to earlier readings and confirm the same underlying groundwater flow from west to east, as expected. Further readings will be downloaded in due course. 

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

AMEC survey Straitgate watercourses

An AMEC consultant today walked the Straitgate area assessing where best to position gauges for long-term monitoring of stream flows. Such gauges would not only inform any planning application, but also, if quarrying were to take place, highlight any changes to stream flows or response times to rainfall events as a result. During and after any potential quarrying, streams from Straitgate would legally need to maintain the same flow characteristics, so that wetland habitats in Ancient Woodland and downstream communities prone to flooding would be unaffected. It remains to be seen how this could ever be achieved.

ePSV - for anybody with a penchant for such matters

DCC has clarified with its Materials Laboratory why the Pebble Beds (PBs) have apparently become more durable (LAA, 5.18). PSV is a measure of how quickly a sample of aggregate will become polished, i.e. on a road surface how quickly it will lose its resistance to skidding. Aggregates specified for roads on approaches to pedestrian crossings and traffic lights may require a PSV of 68 or more, whereas for an infrequently used minor road a PSV of 50 would be acceptable.

Only a limited number of quarries produce high PSV material in the UK. The PBs have previously tested in the mid 50s and Straitgate at 53. The 'Mat Lab' has however recently measured the effective PSV or ePSV of the PBs at 60-64 using "a mix of particle sizes from 3mm to 8mm, which provides greater friction levels than a single sized particle due to the greater surface area (with the smaller particles filling the gaps between the larger ones), and is also more durable and resistant to wear from turning vehicles". DCC confirmed that any extra demand for the PBs created by this re-rating would be relatively minor. Most higher risk locations require PSVs of more than 65.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Councillors reject plans for two sand and gravel quarries against officer advice

Councillors have unanimously refused permission for a two million tonne sand and gravel quarry in Fife, despite officers recommending approval. NHS Fife objected, outlining concerns about "noise, dust, the quarry’s proximity to houses and the psychological effects of living next to a quarry" and saying that "residents living nearby, particularly children, could be harmed by dust emissions...".
Questioning whether assurance could be given that dust from the quarry would not cause a single case of lung disease, [a councillor] compared the health risk to that of coal dust and asbestos. She said: “Even with the mitigation measures, there is still going to be a degree of dust. When the wind blows in a certain direction there will be dust on people’s properties and if there is dust on your windows there is dust in your lungs.”
Her concerns echo those of an earlier post here on respirable crystalline silica.

Reasons given for refusal were "cumulative impact with neighbouring quarries, visual impact, proximity to houses, impact on residential amenity from noise and dust, road safety, loss of trees, flood risk, water table issues and lack of proven need". All bar one could of course apply to Straitgate.

Another application, this time to extract 1.4Mt of sand and gravel near Great Yarmouth, was also refused. The planning officer had recommended approval "to address the current shortfall in the sand and gravel landbank" which, at 5.3 years, was less than the 7 years the NPPF requires. No objections were raised by the Environment Agency, Natural England and Broads Authority, but councillors considered the proposal would harm the setting of a listed church and the amenity of nearby residents due to increased noise, dust and traffic. Substitute church for Devon longhouse or Tudor manor house and again all could apply to Straitgate.

Of course for Straitgate, in a county where there are 15 years supply of sand and gravel, not 5.3, there has already been concern shown by the Environment Agency, Natural England, Exeter Airport and hundreds of others before an application has even been raised. For reasons of its own, Aggregate Industries plainly believes these concerns present no barrier to its plans. Time will tell.