Opencast: A line in the sand on coal

When is something right, and when is it just wrong, despite being accepted in the past?

This was the question I pondered on Saturday as I walked the fields, hedgerows and woodlands of the proposed Highthorn opencast mine.

The rain had abated and the sun sneaked a look through ragged clouds as I stood in the centre of what Banks Mining proposes to turn into a 200ft deep, seven-year hole.

The old oak trees in the wood gave the appearance of having been coppiced, maybe 50 years ago with twisted, tortured trunks; their leaves coloured by the brush of autumn. Ducks were settling on the safety of the open water in the shelter of the bulrushes at Hemscott Hill pools for the night. Starlings were massing on the power lines, each bird delicately balanced, facing the westerly breeze and erupting as one into flight as I intruded into their space.

Banks wishes to scrape away the soil, the trees, the essence of this place, to pile it up and to dig and blast the coal from the earth; the self same coal upon which our industrial revolution, and a good part of our Northumbrian way of life was based.

But now we know, with a creeping, yet unassailable certainty, that we can no longer burn this coal. The effects on our climate are too grave to consider – everyone says so, yet why is so little done?

What about the jobs, the tourists, the money? What about the bats, the newts, the traffic, the flowers and trees? What about our grandchildren, our culture, our hopes for the future? How do we weigh it all up?

As I pondered, President Obama rejected the controversial Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline. The proposal was to transport the dirtiest oil on earth from the heart of Canada to the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. The decision came four years to the day after 15,000 people surrounded the White House to stop it. A line drawn in the sand! 15,000 people who knew in their hearts that it was just wrong – and a politician listened.

I will be writing my letter of objection to the Highthorn Mine before the end of this month. I will be marching, in Newcastle on November 29, with, most probably, millions of others around the world, ahead of global climate talks in Paris.

A shower suddenly swept through on the breeze and a magnificent, full rainbow appeared over the coast bounding Druridge Bay: a portent or a sign of hope? Is the tide now turning on coal? Has the time come for the people of Northumberland to draw their line in the sand?

Martin Swinbank,