Friday, 27 May 2016

What happened at the Examination?

The Examination of the Devon Minerals plan was adjourned today, after four days of hearings. An eight week consultation on modifications will begin in August; the Inspector will consider responses and produce his report by the end of October.

DCC and Aggregate Industries faced a number of difficult questions from the Inspector in relation to Straitgate. The Inspector learnt that despite Straitgate being one of DCC's Preferred Areas for future sand and gravel quarrying, despite the site being championed by the Council since 2012, despite consultations, discussions, reports and planning applications - we still don’t know how the site will be accessed or how the material will be processed. Fundamental unanswered questions. A Preferred Area is meant to be:
areas of known resources where planning permission might reasonably be anticipated
The draft Devon Minerals Plan puts forward two such areas. Even on the first day of the Hearing, in relation to over-provision of resource, the Inspector said:
I suppose the question is, do you need two Preferred Areas?
On the second day, questions started on Straitgate. On access, AI confirmed that it had no rights over the northern part of the site, leaving the only possible access on the southern side. The Inspector read out to AI what the company had previously said in its planning application to quarry Straitgate:
The southern option, onto the B3174, was dismissed early in the process on highway safety grounds. It would have been too close to existing accesses, including the access to Straitgate Farmhouse, and the vertical alignment of the highway at this point would compromise visibility. 5.44
Despite having had six months to sort this out, AI said it was still 're-assessing' this option; the option where the recent safety audit indicated that HGVs could only turn left - not right, where they would need to go; the option where only this week a DCC Highways Officer said "nothing has been resolved nor even tentatively agreed".

The Inspector moved on to processing. Having first ruled out Whiteball in Somerset, the Inspector read out to AI what the company had previously said in its planning application to quarry Straitgate:
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
The Inspector wanted to know if AI had ruled out Rockbeare. AI wouldn't go that far, but did confirm that 'a detailed assessment had ruled it out as a viable option'. So, if not Rockbeare, what about Blackhill?

The Inspector read out to AI the objection from Natural England in response to the recent Blackhill/ Houndaller application; an application to process a fraction of the amount of nitrate-rich soils that would come from Straitgate:
At the current time, Natural England does not concur with the applicants view that the importation of the proposed material will not have an adverse effect on the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths SSSI/SAC for the following reasons... The unit of the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths adjacent to Blackhill Quarry contains sensitive wetland habitats including areas of M14 - Schoenus nigricans-Narthecium ossifragum mire which is dependent on low nutrient status. This habitat is more sensitive than any other wetland habitats and is very sensitive to any nutrient change...
AI said it was working on a response. DCC said it was not putting Blackhill forward as a processing site in the Minerals Plan, relying on the phrase:
Proposals for the off-site processing of extracted materials should be located outside of the AONB unless exceptional circumstances can be demonstrated.
Which is all well and good, but where does DCC think the material will be processed?

The Inspector also raised questions on the risk of birdstrike, soil storage, B3180, hydrogeology, ancient woodland, archaeology, hedgerows and dormice, heritage, visual impact on AONB, flooding and tourism.

A further question addressed the amount of resource, and this issue was also considered at the hearing today. Earlier on in the proceedings, it was made clear that AI had dropped the 460,000 tonnes of overburden from its plans; an issue we had raised last year.

On the remaining resource, only last month DCC had advised:
Given that Aggregate Industries has stated the quantity by which their original resource figure would be reduced by compliance with the requirements of Table C.4 of the Plan, I consider that it would improve clarity of the Plan if the currently-modified reference to "Up to 1.2 million tonnes" be replaced by "Approximately 0.9 million tonnes".
This was in line with the EA's position:
In addition, although it was our understanding that the minerals development at Straitgate would entail above max water table working, we note that the operator is now proposing an operation that does not conform to the requirements of this policy or the mitigation proposed in Appendix C.
DCC has now backtracked on its statement, relying on the number in AI’s hastily produced resource statement, which "assumes a working base that coincides with… the maximum recorded winter water table" - not 1m above it - and the Council persists with the notion that Straitgate could provide "Up to 1.2 million tonnes"; a ridiculous show of faith when you consider how many times AI has revised that number. The dry working scheme sanctioned by the EA - see post below - could only produce 900,000 tonnes, according to AI’s own Regulation 22 response, and this point was made to the Inspector.

To safeguard private water supplies, the Inspector recommended more consistent wording in the main body of the Plan to reflect the wording in Appendix C.4:
The development of this site will only involve dry working, above the maximum winter (wet) level of groundwater with an unsaturated zone of at least 1m maintained across the site.
In summary, the Inspector was left not knowing how processing of any material from Straitgate would take place nor how access to the site might be safely achieved; a ludicrous situation for a Preferred Area; a ludicrous situation when you consider how long DCC and AI have had to prepare for this.

AI may claim 1.2 million tonnes, but...

With AI claiming a resource of 1.2 million tonnes at Straitgate, the resource that "assumes a working base that coincides with, and never drops below the maximum recorded winter water table", the resource backed up by all those references to PERC, one would have assumed that AI must have had a nod from the Environment Agency - that working down to the maximum recorded winter water table would be acceptable - because the last thing the EA publicly said on the matter was rather different.

It makes a difference, because 1m across an extraction area of 25.6ha equates to 410,000* tonnes net.

It makes a difference, because over 100 people rely on the area for their drinking water.

But guess what? Since the EA said that AI must stop quarrying 1m above the water table, since the 7 suits meeting in November, since AI’s minutes that claimed everybody else was at fault, since Amec's scope of additional work, since the drainage tests in February, no agreement has been either sought or secured by AI from the EA.

In fact, according to the EA, since the 7 suits meeting, there has been no communication with AI of any sort, and certainly no "Technical Note to summarise the whole hydrological position" 4.3. Nothing in fact to allow AI’s PERC-backed resource statement to assume "a working base that coincides with, and never drops below the maximum recorded winter water table"; it's all just wishful thinking.

Some might find the lack of dialogue with the EA strange. It's an issue that is central to the whole proposal, for a company that up until a few months ago was very much in a rush, for a company seemingly without a Plan B, for a company whose planning permission for processing at Blackhill on Woodbury Common expires in little more than 6 months time.

*(25.6ha x 10,000m2 x 1m x 2tonnes/m3 x 80% to exclude waste)

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Minerals Plan Examination this week; Straitgate to be discussed 2pm Wednesday

A reminder that the Devon Minerals Plan Examination hearings starts on Tuesday; the Agenda can be found here. As DCC's press release makes clear, all are welcome to attend and observe proceedings:
A government inspector, Mr Andrew Freeman, will conduct the hearings to establish the soundness of the Minerals Plan. Participation in the hearings is limited to people that responded to last year’s consultation and have already requested to take part, although any person can attend to observe the hearings.
Various newspapers are following events; this is how we summed up the Straitgate situation for the Western Morning News article that appeared last week:
Destroying a productive and historic East Devon farm for the sake of 900,000 tonnes of sand and gravel makes no sense at all. There’s less than 3 years’ worth of material, which is trivial for a Minerals Plan that runs until 2033. There’s nowhere to process the material other than Aggregate Industries' existing plant, 8 miles away on Woodbury Common in the East Devon AONB; permission for this plant expires at the end of 2016, and Natural England has already objected to the importation of nitrate-rich agricultural soils to this protected area. What’s more, groundwater from Straitgate supplies wetland habitats in ancient woodland and over 100 people with their drinking water. We've made representations in the hope that, where Devon County Council has been unable to see sense, the Inspector will.
DCC

Friday, 20 May 2016

For all those who knew Brontë...

Our wonderful Leonberger passed away suddenly yesterday and will be sorely missed.

B3180 - one of the most dangerous B roads in Devon

Local people already know about the dangers of the B3180, and why this road should not be used by Aggregate Industries to haul as-dug sand and gravel from Straitgate Farm to Blackhill for processing - up to 200 HGV movements a day for 5 years. There's plenty of photo and video evidence too.

The dangers of the B3180 are also recognised in the DCC 2014 Road Safety Statistics Year End Report, that ranks Devon's B roads from the most to the least dangerous using 5 years of accident data.

AI's claim that "the proposed B3180 is considered to be suitable as the recommended route for the transport of material from Straitgate Farm to Blackhill Quarry" 4.2.1 is patently absurd when you consider that the stretch southwards from the Halfway Inn is ranked the 4th most dangerous B road in Devon.

The rest of the stretch that AI wants to use is not much better: the B3180 from the Halfway Inn to Daisymount is 32nd most dangerous; the B3174 from Daisymount to Ottery St Mary, now AI’s only route out of Straitgate, and scene of an HGV crash only last month, is ranked 26th most dangerous.

No doubt AI will consider those routes suitable too; AI’s take on reality is different from the rest of us.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Local feelings run high

One of the comments we received in response to last week’s post, Finally, in writing, how AI thinks it can wrestle 1.2 million tonnes from Straitgate, clearly and eloquently sums up what many local people think about Aggregate Industries' reckless scheme:
Who would ever believe an outfit as shabby and slapdash as AI could possibly follow the provisions they say they would in respect of the water table. Good grief I wouldn't trust them to dig my veg patch let alone a hydrologically sensitive part of our local enviroment. Can you imagine it? Unless they plan to excavate using hundreds of people each with a piezometer and a dessert spoon, they stand no chance in a million years of fulfilling this pledge.

Monday, 16 May 2016

PERC

Anyone reading Aggregate Industries’ hurriedly rushed-out resource statement for the Minerals Plan Examination might be forgiven for wondering why so many references to PERC (Pan-European Reserves & Resources Reporting Committee) were needed to back up a simple estimate of sand and gravel buried under an East Devon Farm.

Was it an attempt at assurance, because so many of AI’s facts and figures have fallen down on scrutiny in the past? Was it to impress the Inspector?

Since this acronym has now been thrown into the ring, others might want to learn what PERC is all about:
PERC is the organisation responsible for setting standards for public reporting of exploration results, mineral resources, and mineral reserves by companies listed on markets in Europe.
LafargeHolcim, AI’s parent company, is indeed listed on markets in Europe. The PERC Reporting Standard "sets out minimum standards". As AI has made clear to us before, with regard to the public reporting of mineral resources:
the responsibility of Competent Persons towards the Public overrides all other specific responsibilities including responsibility to professional, sectional, or private interests or to other Competent Persons. p.52
The PERC Reporting Standard provides a checklist of factors that should be taken into account when estimating and reporting on mineral resources, factors such as:
Any potential impediments to mining such as land access, environmental or legal permitting. p.46
In other words, the sort of impediments that AI overlooked in its planning application for an optimistic and impossibly precise "saleable quantity of 1,659,780 tonnes of sand and gravel", the planning application that was later withdrawn because the company had no legal rights for access or soil storage over third party land.

And given that DCC, the permitting authority, has now - based on AI’s figures - revised the resource down to 900,000 tonnes in its draft Minerals Plan to reflect environmental factors, i.e. the "retention of a one metre unsaturated zone above the winter water table, as required in Table C.4 of the Plan", it’s not quite clear how AI can claim that "during resource calculation the principles of the PERC Standard 2013 were rigorously applied", whilst at the same time claiming that resources "currently amount to 1.2 million saleable tonnes".

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Finally, in writing, how AI thinks it can wrestle 1.2 million tonnes from Straitgate

Earlier this month, we wrote how DCC belatedly revised the Straitgate resource figure down to 900,000 tonnes for the Minerals Plan, to reflect the "retention of a one metre unsaturated zone above the winter water table, as required in Table C.4 of the Plan".

Now - almost 12 months since Aggregate Industries first applied for planning permission to quarry Straitgate Farm and less than 2 weeks before the Examination - the company has finally put in writing - for the Minerals Plan - exactly how it hopes to win 1.2 million tonnes of sand and gravel from the site.

People will remember how persistently evasive AI has been on this point. At the time of the application, we said it was clear that AI wants to quarry down to the water table - of the aquifer that supplies 106 people. We wrote to the Environment Agency, and 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.
The same day, in email correspondence with DCC, AI 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 modelled to a surface 1metre above the highest winter water table
By the end of October, however, matters were still unclear, and 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.
In December, we revealed what AI’s idea of a 1m standoff really was, and that the amount of sand and gravel the company intended to leave as an unquarried buffer above the maximum water table to safeguard private water supplies was nothing.

Now, 6 months later, AI has finally confirmed as much in writing:
The resource declared assumes a working base that coincides with, and never drops below the maximum recorded winter water table modelled by hydrogeological specialists AMEC Foster Wheeler following extensive monitoring and analysis since January 2013. However these levels will only be progressed during summer months when the water table is at least 1m below the said modelled surface thus maintaining a minimum 1m buffer zone. Prior to winter water table rebound, relevant levels in the quarry floor will be restored using overburden to at least 1m above the said modelled surface, again always maintaining a minimum 1m buffer zone.
It's a particularly reckless idea given the number of people who rely on Straitgate for their drinking water, given that the maximum recorded winter water table modelled by hydrogeological specialists was deduced across an area of some 60 acres from just 6 data points, despite "the acknowledged variations across the site and the concern that there has been no piezometer installed at the centre of the site". In January, we asked DCC:
Since AI now intends to dig right down to the maximum water table, perhaps you could ask Amec to confirm the specific level of accuracy (in +/- m) to which their maximum groundwater contours are mapped?
DCC did indeed ask AI/Amec for an answer. Tellingly, none has been forthcoming.

What’s also telling is that there’s no longer any talk of the 460,000 tonnes of saleable resource that AI claimed could be rescued from the overburden. AI says:
Resources were re-calculated accordingly and currently amount to 1.2 million saleable tonnes. "Resources are classified as Measured Resource according to PERC Standard 2013". Calculations have been undertaken by Chartered Geologists.
Not many months ago, the very same Chartered Geologists gave an altogether different statement:

Miscellaneous

‘It was surprising,’ he said. ‘They came down to talk to the village, and we thought they’d strike a conciliatory tone. But instead they just turned up with the message, “you’ve bought a home near a mine – now get used to it!”’
It’s not rocket science... the effective conservation of the species and habitats protected by the Nature Directives relies first and foremost on the proper implementation of these laws... that the impacts of proposed developments are properly assessed.
An East Sussex council has won a legal challenge to an inspector's decision to allow 103 homes after the High Court agreed that mitigation measures to reduce the scheme's impact on protected heathland could be inadequate.The site lay in the High Weald AONB and within seven kilometres of the Ashdown Forest special area of conservation (SAC) and special protection area (SPA). The main issue focused on whether it was possible to exclude the risk of likely significant effects on the SAC from nitrogen deposition caused by vehicle emissions from the development and, as the council argued, cumulatively with other development along the A26 road...
Residents have a right to expect that when recovery of minerals takes place, extraction should seek to be in harmony with infrastructure improvements and development in the area, it should minimise impact on local residents, and it should make enhancements to biodiversity on the land when the recovery is complete. CEMEX is committed to this approach. CEMEX believes residents deserve respect and have appointed SP Broadway to assist with community engagement.

[FM Conway's] efforts have enabled it to reduce the virgin aggregates and bitumen it uses in asphalt production by over 200,000 tonnes per year and divert construction waste from landfill. The initiative was launched to tackle the challenges thrown up by the geological scarcity of high polished stone value (PSV) aggregates.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

More changes to the Minerals Plan

With the Examination hearings just two weeks away, modifications are coming out of DCC thick and fast, too many surely for anyone other than the Minerals Officer to keep track of; the Examination Library came out in February and is at Version 7 before the hearing has even started.

Devon’s new Minerals Plan has been in preparation on and off since 2007, the same year that workshops recognised how safeguarding all mineral resources that might have any future value "maximises the area potentially affected by planning blight".

Nevertheless, DCC, in its wisdom, decided to maximise the planning blight in the draft Minerals Plan by 'safeguarding' the full extent of the Budleigh Salterton Pebble Beds, with exclusions outlined in Minerals Topic Paper 2 5.4.4, "in recognition of the importance of the resource". We have written about 'Mineral Safeguarding' before: How Devon’s new Minerals Plan could blight thousands of homes across the county and Is this really the best way to 'safeguard' minerals?; in our response to the pre-submission consultation we argued that:
The Plan intends to designate Mineral Safeguarding Areas and Mineral Consultation Areas widely across the County, 'safeguarding' all sorts of uneconomic, unrecoverable, unviable deposits, blighting the homes of thousands of people
Mineral Safeguarding is one of the latest modifications, MM43 in the Schedule of Potential Main Modifications Third DraftFollowing questions from the Inspector, DCC now concedes:
It is apparent from review of the resulting MSAs that there are anomalies and inconsistencies arising from differing approaches to settlement boundary definition, while some of the resource blocks are of an area or outline that would be unfeasible for economic extraction. 3.2
Of course, all this should have been obvious when the MSAs were first drawn up. But whilst a number of small areas have now been removed, Bicton for one and parts of Budleigh Salterton for another, many many anomalies remain. If the MSAs have been refined to remove those areas unfeasible for economic extraction, DCC must clearly think that the areas and settlements remaining are feasible; areas such as Woodbury Common & CastleEast Devon Golf ClubWoodbury Park Hotel Golf & Country ClubBystock Pools Nature ReserveAylesbeare Common Nature Reserve; settlements such as Fairmile, Yettington, Coombelake, Taleford, parts of West Hill & Higher Metcombe, Larkbeare, parts of Feniton, Colestocks, Kerswell, parts of Kentisbeare, SmithincottYondercott, Appledore, Hawkerland.

It’s ludicrous just how many nonsensical areas have been 'safeguarded'; take a look at the Revised Draft Policies Map, the Alterations to Mineral Safeguarding Areas, and the online map - yet to be updated.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Sales of sand and gravel in Devon flatline in 2015

Construction may be booming, but 2015 sales of sand and gravel in the county were barely up on the year before, and continue to be little more than during the recession years. DCC has advised that:
Given that the supply of sand and gravel is a key issue for the Minerals Plan and its examination, the Council has therefore updated its Minerals Topic Paper on sand and gravel supply to include the 2015 sand and gravel data to enable the inspector and examination participants to have the most up-to-date figures available. 
Existing reserves at the end of 2015 stand at 7.01 million tonnes. With the 10-year average annual production at 0.56 million tonnes, the landbank is therefore 12.5 years. The NPPF requires a landbank of 7 years; a clear indication that no new sand and gravel quarries are currently required in Devon.

With the Examination this month, the shortfall of sand and gravel for the 18 years to the end of the Plan period in 2033 is therefore (18 x 0.56) - 7.01 = 3.1 million tonnes. DCC thinks we need another 7 years on top of that for good measure; another 4 million tonnes, or 7 million tonnes in total for the period to 2040.

Either way, this must now be put in context with what's at Straitgate, confirmed in the same document:
While the Pre-submission Minerals Plan [Core Document SD01] stated a potential resource for Straitgate Farm of 1.2 million tonnes, subsequent information indicates that retention of a one metre unsaturated zone above the winter water table, as required in Table C.4 of the Plan, will have the effect of reducing the extractable resource by 300,000 tonnes

Sunday, 1 May 2016

So, perhaps not "essentially the same development" after all?

Aggregate Industries withdrew its applications for Straitgate and Blackhill on 1 March, after failing to check site access rights. But it's now 5 months since AI started to look into new access arrangements.

AI had said: "We anticipate the revised applications will be submitted towards the end of March 2016".

At the end of March, AI then said: "We plan to resubmit the proposal in April."

Well, it’s now May. No new applications have yet been delivered to DCC.

That’s quite a delay for what was supposed to be "essentially the same development"; quite a delay when AI’s planning permission for Blackhill on Woodbury Common expires at the end of this year.

Straitgate resource figure revised down for Minerals Plan

DCC has belatedly accepted that there are only "approximately 0.9 million tonnes" of sand and gravel at Straitgate; modifications to the draft Minerals Plan will now be tabled accordingly for the Examination.

It’s something we have raised before - herehere, herehere and here.


Now the figure is down to just 25% of that - less than 3 years' worth; an almost insignificant amount for a Minerals Plan that runs to 2033 - to weigh against the substantial harm and impacts to an East Devon farm, an AONB and a site of European importance to nature. 

In evidence to the Competition Commission’s Aggregates Markets Investigation, Wardell Armstrong - which 'employs one of the largest teams of Chartered Minerals Surveyors in the UK' - said:
Notwithstanding the lack of availability of new sites, no aggregates operator would consider (for example) trying to develop a sand and gravel deposit of less than one million tonnes. We have clients who have sites which have been turned down on this basis. The planning and development costs are considered too great on a per tonne basis.
So what is Aggregate Industries playing at? Quarrying Straitgate makes no sense at all.

International Dawn Chorus Day

Today is International Dawn Chorus Day - a 'worldwide celebration of nature's daily miracle'.

You wouldn't normally associate the noisy destructive business of quarrying with being able to hear the sound of birdsong, but apparently at Aggregate Industries:


Who would have thought that quarrying had become so quiet? Or is it because today is Sunday?