Monday, 29 September 2014

Archaeology and openness

Even after 55 trenches have been dug, up to 98% of Straitgate's "rich historic landscape" stands to be lost without any further archaeological investigation.

It remains to be seen how much is disclosed at a meeting on site this week, but, to date, the details of the archaeological survey have been more closely guarded by Aggregate Industries than any other part of the pre-planning investigation work. No plans, no method statements, not even - until recently - the number of trenches. Why? Is AI worried that any publicity could turn the dig into something bigger? Worried that more of the site could need to be surveyed?

Local people will have seen the news last week about the hoard of 22,000 Roman coins unearthed by a metal detectorist near Seaton. Local people may also remember the news a few years ago - England's western-most Roman town uncovered. The person leading that investigation is quoted as saying:
I'm hoping that we can turn this into a community excavation for everyone to be involved in, including the metal detectorists
Because archaeology should be open. History belongs to us all.

Dormice and hedgerows

Dormice are a species on the edge of extinction and are heavily protected - there is a known population at Straitgate. For those concerned that archaeological trenching will destroy any of their hedgerow habitat, the method statement agreed between SLR and DCC will have made clear that the contractors cannot remove any length of hedge without prior checks for dormice or their nests by a licensed ecologist. Obviously, any hedgerows that are removed must be rapidly restored to ensure habitat connectivity is maintained; planning permission is not a done deal - these are pre-planning investigations.

Aggregate Industries plans to grub up almost 2 miles of these ancient Devon hedgerows - some 4 metres wide or more. There are strict rules in providing compensatory habitat for dormice, and earlier this year AI planted trees around the site. Since the company has now revised its extraction area, a long length of 'hedgerow' is now in the wrong field; referred to previously in - Aggregate Industries' answer for the dormice - an 'escape route'. This entire length will now need to be replanted in the right place; one year of growing time has been lost.

By our reckoning, AI's newly planted area of saplings barely matches the area of ancient hedgerow at risk; saplings that will, by the way, take many years to provide any sort of dormice habitat. This is what Natural England and an ecological consultant say on the subject of compensation, respectively:
Area provided should exceed losses in potentially high impact cases as the acceptability of new habitat to dormouse is not predictable… Planting of replacement habitat should begin as early as is practical in the works programme as it will take several years before areas become utilisable by dormouse both in terms of structure and food supply.
In fact, where significant impacts are predicted there will be an expectation that compensation will provide an enhanced habitat (in terms of quality or area) compared with that to be lost. Compensation should also remedy any loss of connectivity brought about through the development.
Digging a quarry can’t be anything other than high impact to dormice. So where's the enhanced habitat?

Friday, 26 September 2014

Archaeology contractors leave a message for local people on the farm gate


Following our earlier suggestion, Aggregate Industries has now invited a small group of local people with a keen interest in local history to meet with archaeological contractors next week to discuss investigations and progress to date.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

An air of secrecy surrounds Straitgate this morning

An archaeological contractor couldn’t remember how many trenches were dug yesterday or how many had been dug this morning. It turns out they have been expressly told not to tell local people anything about how work is progressing.

The reason given for all the secrecy? Contractors don’t want members of the public turning up with metal detectors - which is ironic, after they had no intention of doing so themselves yesterday. Are they or Aggregate Industries concerned local people might find important artefacts where they have found none? 

These are the signs that greeted us this morning. Time Team this is not.

Aggregate Industries respectfully requests

Following the missing metal detector debacle yesterday, Aggregate Industries has respectfully requested that we and other local people do not enter any land at Straitgate Farm where archaeological investigations are taking place - even when machines are idle and contractors off-site - on the grounds that the 30-40 cm deep trenches, as in the photograph below, present a health and safety hazard. AI intends to put warning signs around the site in due course.

AI advised us that to enter the dig site without company permission would be trespassing. However, only the tenant - who has to date kindly granted us access - can bring a claim for trespass, not the landlord.

Nevertheless, AI assures us it has nothing to hide and does not need the help of the public to audit its investigations. Unfortunately, events yesterday - when neither SLR, AI nor DCC were present at the start of archaeological investigations - would seem to indicate otherwise.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Archaeological evaluation begins... without a metal detector

Digging of the 55 trenches to evaluate archaeology at Straitgate Farm started today. A detailed method statement had previously been agreed between SLR Consulting - who are overseeing the project - and DCC, stating exactly how these trenches should be dug, evaluated and recorded. It clearly states that "trench spoil will be scanned with a metal detector" - as any member of the general public would expect for a site "within a rich historic landscape" - and yet, unbelievably, the archaeological contractors employed by SLR had not intended to do so.

We hope that this has now been remedied; however, it does not inspire confidence. How many other procedures are not being followed correctly? Why does it take members of the public to monitor and correct shortcomings in Aggregate Industries' pre-planning investigations?

Saturday, 20 September 2014


An Aggregate Industries’ spokesman has confirmed that digging of the 55 trenches referred to earlier will now start next week. The 1.8m wide trenches will be in the range of 50-100m (not 30-50m as we had been told by a DCC archaeologist) and will total just under 3500m in length. They will comprise 2% of the revised site, giving the new area now being proposed at approximately 31.5 hectares, including haul roads, tree planting, overburden storage etc.

This now confirms that AI is only intending - and only ever intending - to quarry to the west of the geological fault line that runs through Straitgate Farm. Taking standoffs into account, this now gives a quarryable area of no more than 25 hectares. The mean thickness of the pebble bed deposit in this area above the water table is 5.2m giving a net recoverable resource of less than 2 million tonnes.

Even this figure excludes resource lost for face angles, and extra standoff from properties on the west of the site that may need to be made following noise assessments. Restricting excavation to "1 metre above the maximum level of the water table", as AI was forced to do at Thorn Tree Plantation at Blackhill Quarry, would reduce that figure by a further 0.4 million tonnes. 

Two million tonnes is little more than a quarter of the figure put forward in AI’s September 2011 geological statement of 3.5Mt in phase 1 and 3.8Mt in phase 2. It was a point we made at the start of 2013 in DCC is overstating the 'recoverable' resource at Straitgate by more than 50%.

Of course, AI is still hoping to quarry below the water table and is “confident that the proposed design won’t have an impact on groundwater”. However, it will be the Environment Agency that will be the arbiter of that call - for the 3 working farms and 100 people around the site who rely on the area for their drinking water, and for the wetland habitats in the ancient woodlands. And it will be Exeter Airport that decides whether ponding and wet grasslands that attract birds is something it wants just beneath aircraft landing at Exeter Airport.

Many people will understandably wonder why profit-hungry Swiss-parent Holcim - a company currently focusing on improving its return on invested capital to above 8% - would be driven to sanction the cost of consultants, surveys, investigations, reports, planning applications, appeals, etc, etc - and the cost of moving processing plant - all for the chance of winning less than 6 years' supply of low-margin aggregate.

© Aggregate Industries UK Limited

Thursday, 18 September 2014

55 trenches

Doesn't 55 trenches - to assess ‘anomalies’ thrown up after the geophysical archaeological survey last December - sound a lot to you? It adds up to about 1.4 acres and 3,500 tonnes of soil to excavate. Remember the test pits that Aggregate Industries dug in November 2012? That was for 400 tonnes.

But it is important to assess any archaeology before ripping the farm apart with bulldozers and quarrying equipment. A pre-historic track is thought to run through Straitgate, and a number of archaeological finds were made in the area during the construction of the A30. The site's prominent position was also an important junction, where a Roman road (the Fosse Way - old A30) crossed a Saxon road (B3180) running from the Blackdown Hills to Exmouth.

Would significant archaeology stop a quarry? Well, only this week in South Oxfordshire “a rural site is being assessed for heritage status, which could affect plans for a large quarry”.

DCC's map of historical and archaeological features at Straitgate Farm

Even very small amounts of silica dust are harmful

We've written about the dangers of silica dust or respirable crystalline silica before. It is an invisibly fine dust generated when quarrying and processing sand and gravel.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014


Following a geophysical survey of Straitgate Farm last December, to assess areas that might require further archaeological investigation, an extensive plan was agreed with DCC in March to dig 55 trenches across the site - each trench 30-50 metres in length, 2 metres wide, up to 40 cm deep. It is understood that these trenches may be started in October. The exact number will depend on the area Aggregate Industries intends to quarry. The trenches will be dug by archaeology contractors, overseen by archaeologists from the Council. Reports with analysis of findings will follow.

Regarding DCC's new Minerals Plan, presubmission consultation has been pencilled in for next spring, with the Council holding local meetings beforehand. AI has still not submitted anything to DCC to demonstrate that Straitgate Farm is feasible for the Plan. Our understanding is that, following further groundwater and stream flow measurements, any such evidence will not be produced until the new year.

It is now almost two and a half years since DCC’s consultation on Quarrying in East and Mid Devon. The Minerals Plan has been beset by delays as AI has been trying to prove that Straitgate Farm is workable without negative impacts to groundwater. Further delays to the Plan should not be unexpected.

Aggregate Industries' trees around the site, planted earlier in the year

Monday, 15 September 2014

Emergency landing after Swiss A330 suffers birdstrike

Birdstrike is a big deal. It has to be taken seriously. Developments - especially involving water - that have the potential to raise the number of birds directly under the take-off and landing approaches to a busy international airport should not be permitted. At Zurich last week, a plane bound for the US suffered a birdstrike. It had to make an emergency landing after circling for more than an hour to burn off fuel. One hundred and eighty concerned people were on board. The engine was repairable. The red kite - similar in size to a buzzard - was not. The incident was costly in both economic and environmental terms.

Number of cyclists killed or seriously injured in Devon rose by 27% in 2013

... a cyclist who was knocked down by a lorry, said road users must learn to share the road  
Devon County Council will be looking carefully at what it can do to support and protect cyclists and pedestrians, including influencing the skills, knowledge and behaviour of motorists
Planning decisions that help keep HGVs from using the more minor roads in Devon would surely help.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Community engagement is not about being nice; it’s the fourth pillar of CSR

Reads the title of an interesting article from Guardian Sustainable Business. CSR? Corporate social responsibility. The article makes the point that: engagement is a way to understand, engage in and act upon critical workplace, marketplace and environmental issues. It is not additional; it is central. It is not about being nice; it is about addressing business objectives. And it is definitely not about ‘giving back’; it is about companies being part of, not apart from, society.
We touched on the subject a couple of weeks ago in Doesn't AI do hearts and minds any more? and gave an example of just such a company trying to connect with the local community - trying to be part of society - in an open day at its cement plant in Derbyshire. How successful was that open day? More than 2000 people attended, which indicates that local people do want to engage with what's going on in their community. The article finishes by saying:
If sustainability is about benefiting all stakeholders in the long-term, then community engagement can play a central role, helping companies and their people to understand and embrace issues, ensuring a positive impact on all stakeholders.
It's all common sense really; which makes it all the more surprising that community engagement is so low down on the list of priorities for certain quarry companies - companies that cause so much negative impact on local people and the surrounding environment.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Government invites public's views for Autumn Statement 2014

So let's remind the Government to promote the use of secondary aggregates - through both an escalation of the Aggregates Levy on virgin or primary materials and the resumption of the Aggregates Levy exemption on waste or secondary materials, such as the hundreds of millions of tonnes of china clay waste aggregate heaped up in Devon and Cornwall.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Mineral industry casts itself as saviour of the natural environment

MPA totally supports the aim of protecting and enhancing the state of nature and biodiversity delivery across the UK and EU and we will play our part where we can. Our industry is uniquely placed to make a difference, more than any other. Our industry operators are practitioners working in the environment, with the environment, and mainly for the environment.
Powerful words: "with the environment"? "mainly for the environment”? The MPA is a UK trade body representing the interests of international cement conglomerates, so let's not forget that the cement industry pumps out 5-7% of global man-made CO2 emissions - as well as a variety of heavy metals, particularly mercury. Never mind the impact that quarrying itself has on the environment.

Furthermore, and how's this for business babble:
Supporting biodiversity is a key aim for us: it is a key part of our license to operate. It also makes good business sense to restore sites to high quality and help deliver national and local environmental priorities and biodiversity targets. We can demonstrate the overall gains in environmental quality as result of our operations, and community support of, and use of, our sites.
Restoring sites? There are people, both in Devon and elsewhere, who will question those words - with a historical and seemingly never-ending legacy of quarry sites used for brownfield development.

"Where next?" he says:
We will build and validate the database, we will evaluate the asset better, we will capitalise on offsetting and ecosystem services, we will write the story better, we will tell the story better. Our aim is to see the industry shake off historic and false perceptions and become recognised as a very significant national biodiversity asset.
"Write the story better"? "Tell the story better"? People next to mineral sites and cement works will just want the industry to "do the story better".

Monday, 1 September 2014

Birdstrike - 'next major challenge in airport wildlife mitigation: addressing threats beyond the airport perimeter'

Damaging strikes are showing an increase outside [the airport] environment”, reports the September 1 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology in an article, Airports Reducing Wildlife Strike Risks: As bird-strike data improves, efforts to boost safety go beyond airports:
While strikes above 500 feet [above ground level] account for only 29% of the total number of reports in the FAA database, they make up 43% of the damaging incidents… “Damaging strikes are showing an increase outside [the airport] environment,” FAA’s Weller says. “Now is the time to do something about that. Airports have to put on sales hats and create partnerships with their neighbours.”
Where outside the airport environment? Specifically, says the attached podcast, “in the 5 mile corridor that aircraft approach and depart”. In other words, exactly where Straitgate Farm sits, 3.7 miles from and directly in line of Exeter Airport’s runway.

Airports across the world are increasingly having to work beyond the airport perimeters at controlling the birdstrike threat to aircraft and human life. Birds pay the price - and are culled in their thousands. Land-use proposals that attract birds directly under takeoff and landing approaches - such as Aggregate Industries' quarry plans at Straitgate which would leave a "priority wetland habitat" - would obviously run counter to these aims. Strict regulations for such proposals are set down in the UK by the CAA. Passengers trust that airports - including Exeter - will do everything within their means to keep them safe.