Monday, 21 December 2015

As this blog enters its 5th year…

AI's planning applications for East Devon run on and on, careering from problem to problem, riddled with inaccuracies, inconsistencies, fabrications and falsehoods. Huge questions still have to be answered before they go anywhere near the Development Management Committee. Here are just a few:

The question of what happens when all of the unsaturated material above the maximum water table is removed, and millions of gallons of groundwater storage capacity is permanently lost on top of a hill above flood-prone communities, at a time when flooding events are happening with increasing frequency and intensity; DCC has already requested that, "due to the nature of the flood risk downstream, betterment should be achieved".

The question of what protection is left for people’s water supplies, when AI proposes to quarry right down to, and remove all the sand and gravel above, the maximum groundwater level across the whole site. The question of the proposed Section 106 and who decides if the water is lost or polluted, and who picks up the tab if the cause is disputed; the question of the 60% of groundwater users not intended to be covered at all. The question of why AI thinks it’s acceptable to leave just 1m of soil post-restoration between the surface and maximum water table as protection against future pollution; at nearby Town Farm, where far fewer water users were at risk, Hanson made it clear that "Post restoration (including the placement of soils) the resulting ground surface will be at least 2m above the water table".

The question of soil storage, after AI conceded it has no rights to use 3rd party land for this purpose; the question therefore of revised plans and new boundaries; the question of 340,000m3 of top soil and overburden - enough to take out another 42 acres of farmland if piled 2m high.

The question of continued processing at Blackhill, when AI can’t demonstrate the "exceptional circumstances" required by the NPPF for continued working in an AONB.

The question of importing a million tonnes of nitrate-rich soils from a dairy farm into a nitrate-sensitive wildlife site of European importance.

The question of the absent tree planting and dormouse mitigation, when 2km of their ancient hedgerow habitat is proposed to be grubbed up; NPPF: "...local planning authorities should aim to conserve and enhance biodiversity by applying the following principles: if significant harm resulting from a development cannot be avoided (through locating on an alternative site with less harmful impacts), adequately mitigated, or, as a last resort, compensated for, then planning permission should be refused".

The question of site access. AI’s plans rely on the use of 3rd party land - outlined below in yellow. Having conceded it has no rights for soil and overburden storage, staff facilities, wheel washes or footpaths on this 3rd party land, AI can't produce the relevant lease to prove it has rights of access either. AI has now confirmed in writing that "the Company would need to revise the quarry development proposals".

AI must surely rue the day it came across Straitgate Farm. 2016 will be interesting - one way or another.

We wish readers a Happy Christmas and Peaceful New Year.

It was everybody else’s fault

Minutes of the 'seven suits meeting' have now been produced. Aggregate Industries, in wanting the meeting to be confidential, was asked to produce the minutes itself to ensure they did not contain "issues that the Company wished to remain confidential". As it turned out, despite the number of AI delegates, the author was not actually present at the meeting, and the model outlined in 3.4 and 3.5 was not actually the one described at the meeting - according to subsequent conversations we’ve had with the EA and DCC.

Regarding the matter of the 1m standoff above the maximum recorded water table, AI says it was the "the presentation of information [in its planning application] that had been misinterpreted" by statutory consultees: the Environment Agency, Natural England, and the Mineral Planning Authority.

But to put it down to misinterpretation by others is disingenuous in the extreme. If AI had wanted people to understand that it was proposing to leave zero metres of sand and gravel above the maximum recorded water table, it only had to use clear unambiguous language to that effect from the start, or in further communications, or in its Regulation 22 response - see post below. Furthermore, nowhere did AI’s planning application make reference to a summer and winter working regime; nowhere was there an indication of extraction phasing that might accommodate this. There was, however, clear unambiguous language from Amec, AI’s consultants, in its hydrogeology report. Here’s one example from several:
The removal of the unsaturated zone down to a level of 1 m above that defined by the maximum winter water level will mean that any change in the recharge/runoff split…
One can only surmise, therefore, that Amec’s conclusions on the impact of AI’s proposal were on that basis. If the standoff proposed above the maximum winter water table is now 0m, Amec should be asked whether it stands by those previous conclusions or whether the impacts need to be reassessed.

However, the simple fact of the matter is that AI did not want to make it clear that it intended to leave 0m of sand and gravel unquarried above the maximum water table, or that post-restoration it intended there to be just 1m of soil above the maximum water table - 30cm of topsoils and 70cm of subsoils - to protect water drinkers from nitrates or other contaminants that might be produced from any future farming or alternative land-use. When Hanson proposed to quarry Town Farm at Burlescombe - same geology, fewer private water supplies - it did make it perfectly clear that "Post restoration (including the placement of soils) the resulting ground surface will be at least 2m above the water table1.4.8 because "the unsaturated zone above the water table affords protection of the aquifer from surface pollution, allowing adsorption, attenuation and degradation of contaminants prior to reaching the water table" C3.1.

An expert's advice on the importance of leaving 1m of sand and gravel unquarried above the maximum water table is also perfectly clear and needs repeating:
Future land uses, after site closure, will be limited by the available unsaturated zone thickness. 3.8
Post-restoration, due to the decreased depth to groundwater and more limited ability of the ground to attenuate contaminants, it is appropriate to impose restrictions on land use. Although nitrate and bacteria, as might result from intensive agriculture, are not contaminants of concern for the quarry and cleanfill operation, these may pose a risk to groundwater quality for downgradient users if the post-rehabilitation land use causes discharges of these contaminants (including diffuse discharges). 6.1(g)
Through quarrying the exposure pathway for any contaminants has been modified. This means that there may be rapid access to the groundwater system for any contaminants, including pathogens. 6.2
When soil is first reinstated, its ability to attenuate contaminants will be lower than for a well-established soil. In a well-developed soil, the top soil grades into the underlying gravels, allowing for further attenuation of nutrients and pathogens. The soil condition would improve with time, but depends on soil management practices. 6.5
Compound all this with the fact that AI doesn’t know with any degree of certainty where the maximum water table actually is across the whole site - even if there were a piezometer in the centre of the site giving the height of groundwater during any quarrying operation - and AI’s whole scheme is patently reckless. If 1m is typically left unquarried above the maximum water table at other sites with sensitive groundwater receptors, it beggars belief that for Straitgate Farm - where the issue of water is so important, be it for flooding, wetland habitats in ancient woodland, airport safeguarding or drinking supplies for large numbers of people and livestock - anything less should even be a consideration.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

AI’s idea of a 1m standoff

From the start, Aggregate Industries has been persistently evasive about how much sand and gravel it intended to leave as an unquarried buffer above the maximum water table to safeguard private water supplies. Yesterday, at a meeting with a company representative, the truth became crystal clear - and the answer was none. AI wants to take it all. AI’s proposed base of quarry working is simply Amec's maximum groundwater level contours; put 0 metres of "Maintained depth over maximum groundwater" into the resource calculation below and out drops AI’s magical 1.2 million tonnes resource figure:

AI says "pretty much all of the extraction area would require the buffer backfilling as per AMEC modelling" with 1m of top soil and subsoils. How this could ever be restored to best and most versatile agricultural land again is anybody’s guess. How this fits in with the methodology of working half of the resource north to south, and the remainder going back from south to north, if extraction down to the maximum groundwater level is only during the drier summer months, is also anybody’s guess. Why AI didn’t want to come clean in its original application is perhaps clearer.

The truth has taken months to come out. Back in June we wrote that AI wants to quarry down to the water table - of the aquifer that supplies 106 people. We wrote to the Environment Agency, and on 9 July posted Clarification from the EA that said:
Aggregate Industries have proposed to stop quarrying a metre above the water-table. We expect DCC to make this a condition of any permission that is granted.
We said: "In which case, AI should now tell us the size of resource left at Straitgate - the size of the 'benefit' that should be weighed against the proposal's considerable harm. According to AI, the site contained "in the order of 1.2Mt of saleable sand and gravel" 3.8 with mineral extraction to the high groundwater level; a 1m depth of sand and gravel across a 25.6ha extraction area equates to about 0.5 million tonnes."

The same day, however, in email correspondence with DCC, AI mysteriously claimed:
a 1metre depth of unsaturated zone will be retained above the winter water table as per AMEC's technical note.
the calculation of the 1.2Mt reserve was modeled to a surface 1metre above the highest winter water table.
Calculations confirmed, however, that AI was overstating the saleable resource by at least 500,000 tonnes if 1m of unsaturated resource were to be retained. In its Regulation 22 request, DCC asked:
The applicant should demonstrate the methodology which will be used on site to ensure no working within the 1m standoff for the highest measured point of the groundwater in the Budleigh Salterton Pebblebeds - given the acknowledged variations across the site and the concern that there has been no piezometer installed at the centre of the site to monitor ground water levels at that location.
To which, all AI would say was:
The highest groundwater level across the site has been defined from historical data which includes two periods of exceptionally high rainfall which has resulted in particularly high water level conditions. Using this elevation surface to define the depth of the excavation, taking into account any standoff requirement, would therefore be conservative. 3.8
At the end of October, DCC warned AI that:
Given the importance of this point, to you as the proposed operator, and evidently to the MPA and the EA who were both of the understanding that you had agreed to this restriction. I am now asking you to clarify in writing whether you are intending to work to the proposed levels set out in the Amec technical Note to the Policy Team and the EA (and on which their recommendation was clearly based) or whether you wish for the MPA to consider your proposal as working to the highest measured level of the winter water table without the 1m standoff.
You will understand the importance of this point and the need for absolute clarity in your response as it has serious implications for the further progress of this application.
Hence the seven suits that subsequently turned up at the EA. Minutes from this meeting have yet to be published. Our understanding from the EA, however, is that they were not left with the impression that "pretty much all of the extraction area would require the buffer backfilling as per AMEC modelling". Next week*, infiltration tests will be performed at Straitgate at the EA’s request; a technical note will be produced, and another round of consultation will follow in due course. AI's next set of documents will obviously attract even more scrutiny from all concerned.

We’ve addressed the importance of leaving 1m of unquarried material above the maximum groundwater level. We’ve addressed the fact that in some places, operators are forced to leave 2m. We’ve addressed why at Town Farm, a quarry with the same geology but far fewer groundwater users, Hanson said:
The scheme proposes extraction within the Pebble Beds to 1m above the highest recorded water table level. C3.1
AI obviously thinks none of this applies to them. It looks as though its application for Straitgate will be decided on working "without the 1m standoff" - against the previous advice of the EA, against DCC’s draft Minerals Plan, against the advice of Amec, AI's own hydrogeologists. AI will have to convince the EA, planning officers, and members of the Development Management Committee of the merits of leaving nothing but a wing and a prayer to protect the water supplies of 106 people, 3 farms and their livestock, Grade I Cadhay’s mediaeval fishponds and tearooms that serve 2000 people a year.

*Edit: Delayed until 2016

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Site access - AI looks at the alternatives

Surveyors contracted to Aggregate Industries were out today assessing site access onto the B3174 Exeter Road - the main road from Ottery St Mary to the Daisymount A30 junction. Five alternative site access points were surveyed; at least three were judged to have unacceptable visibility splays.

AI had been looking to transport material to Blackhill using access onto the Old A30 via Birdcage Lane; even this last week, an AI surveyor was out again working on this option. The fact that AI is now looking at the B3174 is perhaps because the company now recognises that the game is up over claiming it has access rights across 3rd party land onto the old A30, or perhaps because the company wants to answer Hugo Swire MP's request:
If planning is eventually granted then I do feel that DCC should explore alternative entry and exit points to mitigate the disruption that this development will cause.
Whatever the reason, the Google Street View of the B3174 may look peaceful, yet this straight fast road is normally anything but - as local people will attest. Laden 44-tonne HGVs turning onto this road and crawling up this long incline would surely be a recipe for trouble. The photograph below shows what happened the last time just one of AI’s vehicles left Birdcage Lane to go up the B3174; AI would want to put up to 200 HGV movements along this stretch every day.

After "three years of careful planning and consideration", AI's plans are still up in the air.

Friday, 4 December 2015

AI says it's time to #BackClimateAction

The Paris climate talks have started. Business leaders accept that we can’t keep doing things the same way. Businesses will have to change their ways; even Aggregate Industries will have to change its ways. 

A 1.2 million mile HGV proposal to haul material from Straitgate Farm to Blackhill on Woodbury Common is not changing your ways - it says business as usual. Transporting aggregate 23 miles from Hillhead to Blackhill for processing is not changing your ways - it also says business as usual.

AI's parent, LafargeHolcim, claims to be serious about climate - it's even produced a leaflet. Eric Olsen, CEO of LafargeHolcim, says:
We want to set new benchmarks for sustainability, not only for our sector, but for business more widely. To achieve this, our objectives, including those on CO2, must go beyond regular business towards the transformation required for the future low-carbon, sustainable society. This approach has been integral in our work building up to and during COP21, which is fully aligned with the ground-breaking international climate agreement which is sought from the event.

But a company can’t just produce leaflets, it must act. The CO2 polluting HGV haulage plans for Straitgate and Hillhead indicate that AI just doesn’t get it. AI has to do more than talk the talk.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Natural England issues an "Objection/Further information req'd" for Straitgate too

Aggregate Industries’ problems go from bad to worse. Further to Natural England's response in July, the agency has now responded to the company's Regulation 22 response with an "Objection/Further information required" for Straitgate Farm. 

Since AI's Regulation 22 response identified Blackhill as the only viable processing option, NE has advised DCC to assess whether the Straitgate Farm proposal will have a significant effect on a European designated site, raising again the issue of importing nitrate-rich soils from a dairy farm into the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths SAC and East Devon Heaths SPA. It has responded on a number of other issues too - the lack of a "thorough examination of potential alternative sites", the lack of a proper great crested newt survey and the lack of replacement habitat for dormice.

AI had made the claim that:
It has been demonstrated that processing at Rockbeare is not physically possible due to a lack of silt space and clean water storage, insufficient stocking and processing area and the presence of great crested newts in existing ponds. 8.37
Given… the absence of another suitable site for processing the mineral... it is considered that exceptional circumstances exist that should enable the LPA to permit the 5 year extension of the existing operation at Blackhill Quarry. 8.58
Natural England demolishes this argument:
The presence of Great Crested Newts at Rockbeare Quarry is cited as a constraint to the consideration of using Rockbeare Quarry as an alternative location for the processing of quarry materials from Straitgate Farm. Natural England advises that the potential exists for this to be addressed through European Protected Species licencing and that this avenue could be explored through consultation with our licensing team.
The applicant also does not appear to have explored the feasibility and costs of undertaking modifications to increase the capacity of water storage and silt settling lagoons at Rockbeare quarry. It is also noted in para 6.39 that concrete settling tanks were previously used at Hillhead quarry, however, there is no discussion as to whether a similar proposal at Rockbeare would be an option to increase capacity. Similarly there is no discussion around options to increase the depth of Beggars Roost or raise the height of the bund around Beggars Roost to increase its capacity.
The justification for using Blackhill Quarry to continue to process quarry materials appears to be based on the economic benefits to the Applicant of not moving heavy processing equipment that has been installed at Blackhill, rather than a thorough examination of potential alternative sites.
And on the issue of protected species in and around Straitgate:
We have not assessed this application and associated documents in detail for impacts on protected species, however, despite further information being provided through the Reg 22 response, there is still doubt over whether the Great Crested Newt survey has been completed in line with our standing advice.
We are also aware that changes identified in the Reg 22 response in relation to the tree and hedgerow planting proposed as mitigation for both landscaping purposes and replacement habitat for the dormouse population may affect the quality and quantity of planting that will be in place. Your Authority will need to be satisfied that the mitigation plan proposed by the Applicant is deliverable in the quantity and to the quality required and within the appropriate timescales to provide the necessary replacement habitat.

Monday, 30 November 2015

AI finally admits...

Since we wrote Are AI’s plans unravelling, the company has finally conceded in writing that it does not have the rights to store top soil and overburden or build wheel wash and staff facilities on third party land. Only last month, Aggregate Industries was telling everybody:
The applicant contends that it has necessary rights over the surface to implement the proposals as presented. 8.78
AI still claims it has the rights to create an access road over this third party land, but this is based on a 1965 document - not the later 1976 minerals lease specific to this site, which AI says it can’t find.

This matter could send AI back to the drawing board. It may need to revise its area of working again. It may need to look at the phasing of extraction again - with plans that would maintain stream flows and prevent flooding. It may need to look at the storage of soils again - 340,000m3 of top soil and overburden, enough to cover 42 acres if piled 2m high.

So, another setback and potentially more delays; AI had wanted to be on site by June 2016. But perhaps it should have checked its rights before planning a new quarry; or had it hoped that no one would notice?

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Natural England has another "Objection/Further information required" for Blackhill

Further to Natural England's response in July, the agency has now responded to Aggregate Industries' Regulation 22 response, and has again expressed concern about the importation of nitrate-rich material from Straitgate Farm into Blackhill, and the effects it could have on the SAC/SPA:

Further to the Regulation 22 request for additional information, Natural England remains concerned about the potential importing of nutrients as a result of processing material from Straitgate farm at Blackhill quarry. Paragraph 2.12 of the Regulation 22 response for Blackhill quarry suggests that it is unlikely that any nutrients added to the surface as part of dairy management practices at Straitgate farm would infiltrate through the top 1m of slowly permeable soil to accumulate in the overburden. However, this appears to be based upon an assessment of the soil structure without any appreciation of the soils current nutrient status. Indeed the applicant acknowledges at para 5.3 of the Regulation 22 response for the Straitgate farm application that the PH and nutrient status of the existing soils at Straitgate farm is unknown. Without appropriate soil analysis the applicant can only surmise as to the nutrient load of the overburden that it is proposing to process at Blackhill quarry and use to complete the approved restoration scheme at Blackhill. The applicant should therefore be asked to provide evidence of the nutrient status of the soil including the overburden so the likelihood of any effect on the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths can be properly assessed.
And despite AI's plethora of Regulation 22 arguments, Natural England warns that 'exceptional circumstances' for continuing at Blackhill have still not been demonstrated:
We consider that, taking into account para 115 and 116 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), ‘exceptional need’ for this development within the AONB has still not been justified in the documents provided. The justification appears to be based on the economic benefits to the Applicant of not moving heavy processing equipment that has been installed at Blackhill. The delayed restoration of this site for another 5 years extends the significant adverse impact on the scenic quality and tranquillity of the area.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The importance of leaving 1 metre...

It is extraordinary that the issue of leaving 1 metre of unquarried material above the maximum water table to protect drinking water supplies and prevent flooding is still a matter of discussion between Aggregate Industries, the Environment Agency and Devon County Council. This matter should be non-negotiable.

Perhaps someone might explain to those around Straitgate currently reliant on springs and wells for their drinking water supplies with no mains replacement, why the matter appeared non-negotiable at Hanson's Town Farm Quarry at Burlescombe: same geology, same planned restoration to farmland, but far fewer people reliant on private water. Unlike AI, Hanson was straightforward and upfront:
After all, a 'freeboard' of at least 1m is typical where drinking water supplies are at risk. Is it to be that in Devon we have one rule for one operator and one rule for another? 

In contrast to the SPZ running across Straitgate, the salient points for Town Farm were:
There are no groundwater protection zones shown on the Environment Agency web site in the vicinity of the site… The nearest water supply is [50m] to the west of the proposed quarry extension. It is understood this is a potable supply is supplemented by mains water should it be required. The elevation of the water level and the geology indicate that the well is fed by the Lower Marls and not directly from the Pebble Beds. C2.6
Why was it necessary to leave 1m above the water table unquarried? Hanson recognised that:
The unsaturated zone above the water table affords protection of the aquifer from surface pollution, allowing adsorption, attenuation and degradation of contaminants prior to reaching the water table. Removal of lower permeability clay layers from within the Pebble Beds could also remove some protection from the groundwater. During the operation of the site pollution may arise from the extraction and restoration activities. The pollution may be in the form of fuel, lubricants and other fluids associated with the operator’s machinery. C3.1
You would think that all this was pretty standard. Elsewhere, a hydrogeological expert advised:
Maintaining a 1 metre separation between the base of the excavation and groundwater provides additional time to clean up any spills, provides additional capacity of the soils and unsaturated zone to attenuate some contaminants, and reduces the possibility that any fill used post-quarrying may be inundated, with the increased risk of leaching on contaminants that this would entail. 3.4
Future land uses, after site closure, will be limited by the available unsaturated zone thickness. 3.8
Post-restoration, due to the decreased depth to groundwater and more limited ability of the ground to attenuate contaminants, it is appropriate to impose restrictions on land use. Although nitrate and bacteria, as might result from intensive agriculture, are not contaminants of concern for the quarry and cleanfill operation, these may pose a risk to groundwater quality for downgradient users if the post-rehabilitation land use causes discharges of these contaminants (including diffuse discharges). 6.1(g) 
Through quarrying the exposure pathway for any contaminants has been modified. This means that there may be rapid access to the groundwater system for any contaminants, including pathogens. 6.2
When soil is first reinstated, its ability to attenuate contaminants will be lower than for a well-established soil. In a well-developed soil, the top soil grades into the underlying gravels, allowing for further attenuation of nutrients and pathogens. The soil condition would improve with time, but depends on soil management practices. 6.5
So, it’s not just contamination from quarrying that we have to worry about, it’s contamination from future land use, farming or otherwise - be they nitrates, chemicals or worse. Amec's Hydrogeological Assessment is silent on this matter. Again, you would think it's all common sense; the more sand and gravel left, the more subsequent protection against pollution in drinking water sources. 

The same expert also stated that:
Determining the highest groundwater level with confidence at a site is difficult, and the interpreted highest groundwater may not be accurate to within several metres, because almost invariably, there is not a shallow well with a long term record of water levels at the site. Because of this, a degree of conservatism is often required when using interpreted highest groundwater levels. 3.6 
...there is uncertainty about how smooth the [seasonal groundwater elevation] transition is because there is no piezometer in the centre of the Site and there is the possibility for steps in the water table related to faulting 2.4 ...unmapped local faulting... 3.1 ...the two [maximum water table grids] therefore represent just two of the many possible interpretations of the data which themselves are based on an incomplete parameterization of the detailed groundwater dynamics of the site 4.2 Groundwater levels do not fluctuate evenly across the site... 4.2 Mineral extraction down to this [maximum groundwater level] surface would be dry for the vast majority of time as on average, groundwater levels are expected to be below this level6
In any case, it is highly unlikely that groundwater monitoring over the last 2 years or so will have recorded the maximum possible water table elevation.

On the subject of runoff - a concern to downstream communities around flood-prone Ottery St Mary - Hanson acknowledged:
During the operational phase, the excavation of the quarry will change the response to rainfall with the potential for greater and more rapid surface water runoff than would occur naturally over a vegetated surface C3.2
By maintaining an unsaturated zone thickness of at least 1 m (which increases to 5 m or more in some locations during summer months), the ability of water to infiltrate into the ground is not expected to change as the hydraulic conductivity and infiltration capacity remains the same. All that may change is the ability of the unsaturated zone to “store” water after intensive rainfall events... Bearing in mind that a certain proportion of this rainfall would have naturally ended up as runoff and evaporation then a 1m unsaturated zone should be enough to accommodate this intense rainfall event... The removal of the unsaturated zone down to a level of 1 m above that defined by the maximum winter water level will mean that any change in the recharge / runoff split, if it occurs, may be seen in the winter months and during very high rainfall events... It is not possible to quantify this possible change [in runoff] with any great accuracy. ...the assumption has been made that there may be a 20% increase in runoff. 5.1
It is proposed that no excavations be conducted beneath the water table, this includes up to the 1% AEP extreme high water table level, and that an unsaturated buffer is also maintained between the water table and the surface. Groundwater ingress is consequently not considered a risk at the Site. 3.5.3
It would seem utterly perverse if AI now claimed this 1m buffer was not needed; the EA says peak rainfall intensity could increase by 20% in 2055-2085 and 30% in 2085-2115.

Leaving 1m unquarried above the maximum water table should be a precautionary given; 1m allows for a margin of error and a margin of safety, because the maximum water table is not known with accuracy; faulting across the site is not known with accuracy; excavators would not dig with accuracy; future climate is not known with accuracy; future land use pollutants are not known with accuracy.

At Town Farm, there were two properties reliant on private water. Here's who relies on Straitgate's water:

Monday, 16 November 2015

How many AI 'suits' does it take to have a meeting with the EA?

No, it’s not the start of a joke. A meeting at the Environment Agency on Thursday saw seven 'suits' turn up from Aggregate Industries and Amec in an effort to explain why it would be a good idea to quarry right down to the water table at Straitgate Farm, and backfill with material not good enough for quarrying.

After three years of preparation, and after a mountain of documents, it’s either an indication of AI’s incompetence or its powers of obfuscation that it's still having to explain such fundamental parts of its application to DCC and statutory bodies alike. Local people would have to prey that AI is better at quarrying than coming clean with the facts.

The result of the meeting with the EA is that a Technical Report is to be produced by Amec and AI over the next 3 weeks, which will be sense-checked by the EA and DCC before another round of formal consultation, probably lasting into the New Year; it’s obviously AI’s way of saying Happy Christmas.

Readers will remember that the EA had previously advised that:
Aggregate Industries have proposed to stop quarrying a metre above the water-table. We expect DCC to make this a condition of any permission that is granted.
Even AI, when it quarried Thorn Tree Plantation on Blackhill, said:
To protect the hydrology of the area it is proposed to cease excavation at 1 metre above the maximum level of the water table Aggregate Industries, ED/01/25/HQ, 2001, Site visit
AI has no such concerns here; after all, it’s only peoples’ drinking water. But AI desperately needs this 1m of resource to make any of its numbers stack up.

Nevertheless, AI's report will have to explain why overburden that’s not good enough for the company to work, the one full of clays, will drain as well as sand and gravel - for local drinking water supplies and to prevent flooding. The EA admits it would not be a good idea to backfill with clayey materials.

AI will no doubt claim that drainage can be maintained, even improved. Quite how so, after it removes the stones and sand for itself, remains to be seen. AI will also need to explain, how the soils, having their guts ripped out of them, will still be "capable of being managed as Best and Most Versatile land" 5.30.

This is AI's soil survey. Regular points across the site were surveyed. C stands for clay

Is this another one of AI's 'ephemeral' ponds?

This is what's left of Thorn Trees Plantation on Woodbury Common; AI finished quarrying here about six years ago. This photo was taken last week, but there's standing water here whenever we walk by. The last few months haven't been any wetter than normal. Perhaps Exeter Airport should consider the evidence, rather than take AI at its word 3.40; the geology at Straitgate is much the same.

For Straitgate, AI claims:
These infiltration areas will develop ephemeral pools of water, where standing water would only be observed during periods of extreme rainfall. 7.101
Something like the above?? Exeter Airport and DCC can't say they weren't warned.

Does AI do any forward planning??

Devon's sand and gravel soap opera has taken a new and bizarre twist. 

Aggregate Industries has just lodged a planning application to process material from Hillhead Quarry, near Uffculme, at Blackhill Quarry on Woodbury Common. It will look to make use of the existing permission at Blackhill that runs until the end of 2016.

Each load would entail a round trip of over 46 polluting HGV miles, before onward distribution. This from the company that boasts "We put sustainable practices at the heart of our business".

This application makes a mockery of any minerals planning in Devon; it makes a mockery of the new Minerals Plan's claim that "Maintaining the production of sand and gravel from the southern and northern parts of the Pebble Beds is also important in minimising transportation distances5.4.8.

AI must think the Council is a pushover. Surely it is time for DCC put its foot down to these outlying piecemeal operations that treat an isolated site - in an area designated of European importance to nature in the East Devon AONB - as an industrial processing factory. Only then perhaps will AI do some joined-up-long-term-sustainable-in-the-interests-of-everyone-thinking.

A link to the application will be embedded here when available.

AI's stockpiles... the backdrop for the Commando Memorial on Woodbury Common

We were reminded that Aggregate Industries' stockpiles, reversing beepers and tipper trucks blight not only the wider landscape, but also the backdrop to the Gibraltar Stone memorial to the Royal Marines.
...the Nature Conservation Officer at Clinton Devon Estates, worked with the project to provide the necessary environmental impact survey and to get approval for the siting of the stone from Natural England, the regulatory authority.
The LVIA focused principally on the plant site rather than the mineral stockpiles, as it was considered that the continued operation of a built industrial structure within the AONB was a greater source of potential adverse effect than the more ephemeral and dynamic heaps of processed mineral. The latter essentially having natural aesthetic properties, with muted colours and textures similar to the exposed heathland substrates locally, albeit heaped in a range of engineered stockpiles (size and scale), with vehicle movements during working hours. 3.28
AI has now supplied a couple of selective viewpoints. The above was not one of them. Funny that.

It's obviously not just AI

It’s an understatement to say there were inconsistencies in Aggregate Industries’ planning applications.

But it's not just AI. Here’s an article about another mineral operator who can't come clean with numbers:
The application, which would replace the Copyhold sand quarry, stated incorrectly that the size of the development would be 24 hectares, just below the 25-hectare cut-off that triggers the need for an EIA automatically.
However, after council officers carried out their own measurements, they determined that the site was in fact 27.8 hectares.
...the applicant will now have to provide the additional information on the environmental impact the proposal will have, particularly because of its location in the AONB.
The operator didn't miscalculate by just a few square metres, but by 9.4 acres. The applicant also said, in trying to justify why it needs the material from an AONB rather than "meeting the need for it in some other way" NPPF 116:
Examination of the alternative supplies for West Berkshire and Reading show that without a local supply, the nearest alternative suppliers of building sand would be around 25 to 30 miles distant from Surrey and Oxfordshire.
No doubt the Council will scrutinise those numbers closely too. Nothing can be taken at face value with these companies - nothing can be trusted.

Not all farms are like Straitgate

It has already been established that Straitgate Farm has high ecological value for wildlife; it must have, if dormice have been found:
The hazel or common dormouse is an important 'bio indicator', preferring to live in rich, well, managed native woodland with a mix of species for seasonal food. Its presence is a marker of woodland rich for many species of wildlife.
SLR assessed the 2km of ancient hedgerows that Aggregate Industries want to grub up:
A detailed ecological survey was conducted of all hedgerows within the site. Collected data was analysed against the criteria within the Hedgerow Regulations 1997 to identify hedgerows classified as ‘Important’ under the Regulations. A total of 42 hedgerows were surveyed and assessed. Of these, 31 hedgerows were confirmed as ‘Important’ under the environmental criteria, and 36 were of ‘species-rich’ status.
Not all farms are like Straitgate.

AI will have to do better than that. Where do the dormice go when 2km of hedgerows are ripped out? Dormice can't escape excavators by crossing roads. And Straitgate is surrounded by roads. Send your answers on a postcard to AI, or more importantly to DCC. It was an important issue for Taylor Wimpey:
A major expansion to a Somerset town has been held up for ten years – because it will cost half a million pounds to build a bridge for dormice

Thursday, 5 November 2015

AI doesn’t want to leave 1m to protect water supplies; would it like to leave 2m?

It’s obviously pretty standard in quarry applications to leave at least 1m above the maximum groundwater level when there is any risk to surrounding water supplies - here and here are just two examples of many.

Aggregate Industries would dearly like to reduce this unquarried metre to nothing, if given half a chance; it obviously couldn’t care less about peoples' drinking water supplies.

But AI should count itself lucky that stiffer groundwater restrictions have not been specified by the Environment Agency. In the quarry extension in Kent, referenced in the post below, Condition 37:
No mineral extraction shall take place... within 2 metres of the maximum recorded depth of groundwater... Reason: To minimise the risk of pollution of the public water supply.
Two metres have also been specified here and here, and also Switzerland, home to AI's parent:
The Swiss federal government has banned the extraction of sand and gravel from areas where drinking water is sourced.
permits shall not be granted in groundwater protection zones, including designated drinking water sources;
In a limited number of exceptions, gravel may be removed from above the groundwater level "provided a protective layer of material is left above the maximum groundwater level possible".
During quarrying the protective layer of material is required to be [at] least two metres above the highest maximum 10-year groundwater level.
For surrounding residents relying on Straitgate for their drinking water, the matter is important; AI made claims about 'dry working' at Venn Ottery.

A lesson for AI in 'exceptional circumstances'

The NPPF is clear:
Planning permission should be refused for major developments in [AONBs] except in exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated they are in the public interest.
Charlie Hopkins is also clear:
The approach adopted by the Applicant towards AONB planning policy betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of paras 115 and 116 of the NPPF. It is clear from the Framework that major development in an AONB should be regarded as damaging per se. Para. 115 states that “Great weight should be given to conserving landscape and scenic beauty in National Parks, the Broads and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which have the highest status of protection in relation to landscape and scenic beauty.”
Any major industrial development in an AONB must therefore be regarded as wholly inappropriate and undesirable in such a designated area, thus the requirement of meeting not just the threshold of exceptionality, but also (wholly unaddressed by the Applicant) that of demonstrating that such development is in the public (as opposed to private) interest.
The proposal at Blackhill Quarry represents an extension of damaging, adverse industrial development in the AONB. Current permitted processing operations at the site are subject to strict controls in respect of being both time limited and subject to agreed restoration requirements. The proposal to prolong operations and consequently delay restoration in the AONB is wholly contrary to Framework principles and policies, and, if permitted, would represent development at its most unsustainable.
Since AI, in Charlie’s words, has a fundamental misunderstanding of such matters, this example, where a silica sand quarry extension was recently approved in the Kent Downs AONB, might assist. The planning officer said:
Silica sand is considered to be... of national importance due to its limited distribution. 78
... I am satisfied that that there is a need for the development and that there are currently no viable alternatives if the provision of washed, graded and dried silica sand is to be met in Kent and the South East. I am also satisfied that if new reserves are not permitted at Wrotham it is likely that there would be adverse impacts on the supply of silica sand nationally... In view of this, I am further satisfied that the application meets the “exceptional circumstances” and “public interest” tests required by paragraph 116 of the NPPF. 96
… in the absence of “exceptional circumstances” and “public interest” being demonstrated in the context of need and alternatives I would be unable to support the application. However, for the reasons set out elsewhere in this report, I consider that these requirements have been satisfactorily met. 128
AI cannot claim that if processing did not take place at Blackhill there would be national consequences - especially when it already owns an alternative site 6 miles closer and not in an AONB. Neither is there anything particularly special or scarce or of national importance about the sand and gravel at Straitgate - especially when AI already has millions of tonnes with planning permission just up the M5.

Monday, 2 November 2015


It’s a critical part of the whole Straitgate Farm application - to maintain drinking water supplies and stream flows, to control flooding and to prevent on-site ponding for birdstrike considerations. It's a part of the application you would hope that Aggregate Industries would be completely open and up-front about.

AI says on-site surface water management "relies on the natural high permeability of the geology to allow infiltration of water into the ground" 3.29. Exeter Airport responded to AI on the issue, and said:
With regards to the surface water management at Straitgate Quarry: Given the makeup of the quarry, and as you have pointed out in your email, any water settling on the surface should drain quickly… no water will manage to build up in suitable quantities to become an attractant to large flocks of Gull. 3.40
And the exposed geology may be permeable - for 3,4,5 years of extraction. But buried in a report, commissioned by AI, Soil Resources and Agricultural Use & Quality of Land at Straitgate Farm, is this:
At 29 ha, [the Grade 3a land] is the most extensive land grade on the site… The main limitation is limited workability in spring and autumn due to seasonal wetness from water ponding over slowly permeable subsoils. 3.6
It is these slowly permeable subsoils that would provide the infiltration once the site's restored - and could leave ponding, in perpetuity. Of course, AI doesn’t highlight that.

It's one thing misleading locals, it's another thing misleading statutory consultees.

Group responds to AI’s Regulation 22 responses

A further response has today been submitted by Charlie Hopkins, MA (Oxon) PG Dip Law Solicitor (non-practising) Planning & Environmental Consultant, on behalf of Straitgate Action Group, to DCC in relation to Aggregate Industries’ Regulation 22 responses - and "should be read in conjunction" with the response from members of the group, found here. Charlie's previous response can be found here.

Responses from consultees can be found with the Straitgate and Blackhill application documents.