In its earliest form, the vistas of North Wales, UK were home to Bronze Age mines. Then came the Romans who worked the mines relentlessly, extracting large quantities of resources daily. For centuries after, mining fell from its seat at the heart of what was the rudimental British economy until its heyday of the 19th and 20th Centuries. It was the Industrial Revolution and innovation in mining processes that fundamentally changed the way mining was carried out, and the level and depth at which it could be done.
Today, mining in the UK is a contentious issue; largely the result of the events of the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. Known as ‘The Miners Strike’, in 1984–85 the powerful National Union of Mineworkers responded to plans to close coal mining pits and rely more heavily on imported resources.
While the strike was a flashpoint, the dispute had been building for some time. Once it was over more than 10,000 arrests had been made and six people had died. It was a bloody time in the history of British mining that continues to evoke visceral emotions today. That decade almost all but signalled the end to mining in the UK. Although operations continue, they do so on a scale barely recognisable.
The future of mining in the UK
Despite this unsavoury history, and environmental concerns, the UK is looking to embark on something of a miniature coal mining renaissance. In early September a public inquiry began into the opening of a new – the first in more than three decades – deep coal mine. The facility, situated in Whitehaven, West Cumbria, will produce 2.5 million tonnes of coking coal a year if the £165m project gets the greenlight.
Although the UK Government has not formally approved the project, it opted not to stand in the way of two separate application approvals by the local authority. The proposed mine will directly employ 500 people and a further 2,000 within its supply chain, with a projected lifespan of 40 years. It will add £1.8bn to UK GDP in its first decade of operation, £2.5bn of exports and contribute half a billion in tax according to developer West Cumbria Mining.
Despite this, on the grounds of climate change politician Tim Farron MP said when the world is facing a ‘code red’ you don’t give a ‘greenlight to excavating more fossil fuels’.
Mining in a green revolution
With the backdrop of the Covid pandemic, the UK Government announced its Green Revolution, a 10 point multi-billion pound plan to help eradicate the UK’s carbon emissions and help fight climate change by the middle of the century. It said the plan would create a quarter of a million jobs and generate three times public spending in private investments.
Among the areas set for investment include: wind, hydrogen and nuclear power; decarbonising air and shipping; making homes and buildings more efficient; protecting nature; carbon capture; and significant investments in public transport and electrification of vehicles.
‘‘My Ten Point Plan will create, support and protect hundreds of thousands of green jobs, whilst making strides towards net zero by 2050,’ said Prime Minister Boris Johnson. ‘Our green Industrial Revolution will be powered by the wind turbines of Scotland and the North East, propelled by the electric vehicles made in the Midlands and advanced by the latest technologies developed in Wales.’
For mining, it is the push for innovative technologies such as the electrification of vehicles and renewable power that holds most promise. According to some analysis, the need for lithium will grow four-fold in coming years as the material is required for increasing numbers of batteries. It’s not just lithium, copper and tin are also hot property. It’s for this reason the English country of Cornwall is set to see a potential boom in mining activity.
The Department for International Trade has earmarked the county as a potential mining hotspot, saying it offers an integrated and growing supply chain and skilled mining workforce, all at competitive costs. Calling for investment in the area, the department said: ‘the region’s unique geology yields critical minerals in abundance and, as recent exploration has proven, is the source of virtually unlimited geothermal energy.’
Cornwall is steeped in mining history. It is home to critical technological metals, a welcoming local community and supportive local authority. It also has an abundance of mining enterprises, including Cornish Resource Ltd, Cornish Lithium, British Lithium and Cornish Metals. Although all are currently working in the region, mostly through exploration projects, the latter is currently conducting exploration with the aim of reopening previously working tin mines below Redruth, which closed in 1998 after more than 400 years of operations.
The company is also working at the United Downs site in the area. In September it said it had added a second drilling rig at the copper, tin and zinc site, adding the move was in response to the identification of previously unexplored mining potential. CEO Richard Williams, CEO, said: ‘the ongoing United Downs drilling programme… has successfully demonstrated the existence and the continuity of mineralisation in the holes returned to date.’
Mining further afield
Cornwall isn’t the only place where mining activity is on the rise once more. The island of Anglesey in North Wales is home to Parys Mountain, believed to boast reserves of copper, gold, lead, polymetallic zinc and silver. Anglesey Mining says a January 2021 Preliminary Economic Assessment estimates there are 5.2 million tonnes at 4.3% combined base metals and a further 11.7 million tonnes at 2.8% combined of other compatible metals.
In Northern Ireland too, exploration for gold has been leading mining activities. In County Tyrone the Curraghinalt project will become a high-grade, gold-bearing mine according to developers QME and FP McCann. Close by the Galantas Gold facility, formerly Cavanacaw, looks set to begin full production of gold imminently. The Canadian-based developer has been working on the project since 2014.
Scotland is also home to several exploratory sites; Cononish in the Highlands is a gold and silver project being explored by Scotgold Resources Ltd. Drilling is continuing while Scotgold re-examines its archive of surface and underground diamond drill core to more accurately map, is employing an ionic leach technique to sample soil and carrying out ground geophysical surveys to image deposits in three dimensions.
Mining coming home?
Back in the South West of England the Hemerdon project is believed to be one of the largest tin-tungsten reserves in the Western world. Situated in Devon, the mine was bought by Tungsten West in a £3m deal with former owner Australian-based Wolf Minerals. If exploration goes well and economic feasibility can be proven, the mine will be a valuable addition to the UK’s mining industry, being one of very few tungsten concentrate outside of China.
There are numerous other projects ongoing across the UK, suggesting the mining sector is heading towards a boom. In another sign of a mining renaissance, the Pensana Rare Earths is hopeful its proposed Saltend Chemicals Park plant in Yorkshire will get the go-ahead and become Europe’s only rare earths processing facility, providing neodymium and praseodymium of significant interest because of the integral role the play in the production of electric motors. The £125m site will receive deposits from the company’s Longonjo rare earths mine in Angola – which is currently under construction – for reprocessing.
Given the clear support from local authorities and national governments, and the willingness of companies to invest, the future for the UK industry is brighter than it has been since the darkest days of the early 1980s. It’s clear that the future depends on this evocative job title of the past. Mining, though, has to be more sustainable and receptive to the needs of local communities and their environments. Whether the UK will get that right and be a blueprint for the world remains to be seen.