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

Drainage...

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.