In Deep

Orgreave Colliery, credit Wikipedia

 In Deep,
by William Hartley

Prior to the industrial revolution investors in mining schemes were known as Adventurers. Given that the dividing line between success and failure could be a narrow one, it was certainly an adventurous way of trying to make money. Whilst mining has come a long way since then, there are still elements of the unknown in any attempt to obtain mineral wealth from underground and the risk of failure remains constant.

The demise of coal mining in Britain probably gave the impression that there is no mining industry left. Certainly when it comes to media coverage anything involving mining rarely gets beyond the financial pages, unless of course the environmental lobby decides to object. Yet mining has never gone away and there are a number of ventures, large and small, currently in operation. What unites them is the high risk and high cost of these ventures.

As recently as 2021 there were sixteen companies seeking to explore for metals or develop mines in the UK. These comprise four main groups; base metal projects focussed in the south west and north Wales; battery metals such as lithium in Cornwall, precious metals in Northern Ireland and Scotland; and agri minerals in North Yorkshire.

Whilst mining has always had an impact on the immediate environment, dealing with a site is much more sophisticated than it used to be, when the end of a mining operation could leave a wasteland of industrial dereliction. These days, rehabilitation and conservation management can be undertaken even before production begins. Unfortunately the memory of what the industry used to be like means the strategic element to domestic mining isn’t always appreciated. Yet domestic mining can create jobs and reduce or eliminate dependence on overseas sources.

Important metals such as tin, copper and iron ore are predicted to rise in price in the coming years and demand will continue to increase. Often such metals are to be found in countries whose governments are capable of using such assets to their political advantage. The war in Ukraine gives an indication of what may happen if the supply of vital natural resources is affected. For example, the Donbas region is rich in strategic minerals, suggesting that Russia is looking for more than territorial gains. In this country, likewise, a combination of the rising price of metals on the commodities markets and the need to exercise strategic control, is making domestic mining more attractive.

Some of the sites currently being examined have a long history of exploitation. In the 18th century Parys Mountain copper mine on Anglesey was the richest in Europe. Archaeological finds suggest that the site has a history dating back to the Bronze Age and may even be the location where metal mining in the British Isles originated. For many years the site was a polluted, long abandoned wasteland. Then in 2021 Anglesey Mining began developmental work and now has a 300 metre production shaft on the site. Early tests suggest marketable concentrates of copper, lead and zinc and even some traces of silver and gold.

In West Cornwall, the tin mining industry staggered to an end in the closing years of the last century, defeated by low prices and high energy costs. The last mine to go was South Crofty near Pool, which closed in 1998 having been in operation for 400 years.  As a consequence there is now no mining for tin anywhere in Europe or North America. Supplies come mainly from China, Indonesia and Myanmar. In 2021 a company called Cornish Metals began work on the site. Reopening a mine isn’t easy and Cornish tin mines were always wet places in which to work. A major challenge at the South Crofty mine is to pump water out of a 360 metre deep shaft. Work began in October of last year using submersible pumps and it is expected to take eighteen months to complete. Although the test drillings look promising, the cost of getting even this far is £40m. Once the company is able to access the mine, then this is the stage at which investment decisions will have to be made before mining can begin. It illustrates the massive costs involved in just determining whether or not an actual mining operation is feasible. If it works out, then South Crofty carries the possibility of bringing jobs to a part of Cornwall which are not dependant upon seasonal tourism. The company is hoping to restart mining in 2026; should it succeed then South Crofty promises to be a significant strategic asset for this country.

The knife edge between failure and success is illustrated by the experience of Wolf Minerals, a company which sought to develop the Hemerden Mine near Plymouth. Despite an experienced management team, the company failed to achieve its objectives and went into receivership in 2018. The site now has a new operator called Tungsten West who, supported by £200m in investment, announced this year that they are set to become the largest producer of the metal in the western world. Currently the major supplier of the metal is China.

An even more ambitious project is located in Yorkshire beneath the North York Moors. It is currently Britain’s largest infrastructure project and  like South Crofty is a leap into the unknown but on a much larger scale. Anglo-American, the company behind the project, has seen it share price decline significantly due to investor nerves and the massive cost of the project. The company has sunk a 340 metre deep shaft to reach a product which, unlike say tin, is something no-one is at present sure has a market. They are intending to mine polyhalite, a fertilizer believed to have benefits far in excess of traditional products, although there are those who disagree. The company bases its plans on future population growth and the need to get more out of existing farmland. This massive project is leaving a small surface footprint since they are constructing a 23 mile tunnel from to link the Woodsmith mine with Teesport, from where the mineral can be exported.

What the Woodsmith and South Crofty projects illustrate is the high risk involved. Some things in mining don’t change. But if they are successful, then they have the potential to bring jobs to parts of the country which have been hard hit by the decline in traditional industries.

Bill Hartley is a Social Historian

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1 Response to In Deep

  1. David Ashton says:

    The technology for using coal deposits as a source of oil has been known for decades.

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