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Welsh epic taps a rich seam of rock and coal

Miller Argent is creating the largest land reclamation in Europe, but it has taken nearly 20 years to win over locals and the courts

DeveloperMiller Argent – joint venture between house builder Miller Group, property developer Argent and landowner Bernard Llewellyn
ProjectEast Merthyr Reclamation Scheme
Location Ffos-y-fran, South Wales

On the eastern outskirts of Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales, Europe’s largest land reclamation project has got under way, 20 years after its conception.

The 17-year programme will see the progressive restoration of 406 ha of land to mainly
agricultural and leisure use following the opencast extraction of nearly 11 million tonnes of coal and 360 million tonnes of earth.

But although 367 ha of the area are officially ‘acutely derelict’ due to abandoned mine workings, controversy over the opencast methods has meant the East Merthyr Reclamation Scheme at Ffos-y-fran has taken almost two decades from project -proposal to the granting of planning permission.

The eastern area around Merthyr Tydfil has suffered from severe dereliction for many years caused by unsightly spoil tips, old workings and more recent waste tipping. In 1988 an initiative, comprising three separate phases, was launched by the then secretary of state for Wales with the aim of recreating land which added to the area of East Merthyr rather than detracting from it and its environment.

Phase one and two of the East Merthyr Scheme have been successfully completed with the restoration of around 106 ha of derelict land now being used for housing, light industry and recreation.

But the phase three Ffos-y-fran project proved much more controversial. Its aim was not only to reclaim the derelict land and remove all the iron ore and coal workings on the site but also to pay its development cost through extraction of the underlying coal.

Developer Miller Argent - a joint venture between contractor and house builder Miller Group, property developer Argent and local land owner Bernard Llewellyn - would bear the risk and make the enormous development investment required, then recoup that investment by selling the coal on the open market.

The promise was that the cost to the taxpayer of all the work would be zero and the local community would benefit with a £6 million fund. With coal currently selling for around £30 a tonne, it follows naturally that Miller would retain a decent margin too.

House of Lords appeal

But the scheme ran into trouble, with the tide of opinion against opencast methods dooming it to planning purgatory while successive Welsh authorities battled for it. Final approval was only given last November after the Welsh Assembly won in the House of Lords.

Miller Argent has undertaken extensive site investigations. A management team has been put in place to supervise the work along with compliance with environmental and planning requirements for the entire duration of the ambitious 17-year scheme.

For the removal of overburden, coal extraction and restoration work, Miller Argent negotiated a £65 million deal with Finning UK to supply 46 Caterpillar machines and associated support services.

Finning says the deal represents the largest single site, plant and service contract ever signed in the UK. Miller Argent also spent over £4.5 million on three huge Komatsu PC3000 mining excavator models from UK subsidiary KMG Warrington.

Economic importance

Over the life of the project, Miller estimates it will extract 10.8 million tonnes of low to mid volatile Welsh dry steam coal at 750,000 tonnes to 1 million tonnes a year. Much of this will go by rail to Aberthaw Power Station which generates 42 per cent of the electricity for South Wales.

Miller says that by extracting from this seam and freighting the coal by rail, it will save some 42 million truck miles and generate employment for around 600 people - 200 direct and around 400 indirect jobs.

It will also contribute to the continued viability of the Welsh coal industry and that of the Aberthaw Power Station, thus providing security for more than 2,350 jobs. At the same time, it says the reclamation will ultimately remove and/or make safe a number of disused mine workings, two of which have collapsed in the past year.

Once the site was securely fenced and water treatment areas and access points established in June, the stripping of the areas containing topsoil and subsoil began. The Komatsu shovels were used to load the Caterpillar dump trucks assisted by the low ground pressure Caterpillar dozers.

The subsequent soil dumps will act as acoustic barriers and will be grassed over to protect the structure of the soils as well as to provide a visual benefit. The recycling of onsite waste tips is being carried out by specialist contractors and will be strictly monitored.

After soils have been stored in temporary dumps for use later in the final restoration, the excavation of the material above and between the coal seams can begin.

This excavation is performed using traditional opencast methods but using modern technology.

To prevent dust being raised by the constant flow of trucks and vehicles used on site, dust suppression units will spray water on all haul road surfaces. The excavated material will be stored in overburden dumps, mainly to the east and south of the excavation.

During the excavation process, coal seams are recovered using the smaller hydraulic excavators and loaded into trucks and transported to the coal disposal point at Cwmbargoed.

Before leaving the site, trucks will pass through a wheel wash. Once the coal is unloaded at the DP it will then be blended and loaded into rail wagons for onward distribution to Aberthaw.

Network Rail is restoring the disused rail link between Ystrad Mynach and Cwm Bargoed to allow this to happen.

Final restoration work

The first major excavation of the project is the creation of a ‘box cut’. This provides enough room for men and equipment to operate safely and efficiently. The material excavated for this is taken to a temporary holding dump above ground.

This overburden dump is also grassed and maintained until such time as the material is replaced in the final void to complete the final restoration work.

After completion of the box cut all subsequent excavation is carried out in successive strips and the excavated material from these strips is progressively placed behind the current workings, into the previously worked out voids. The system, described by Miller as a ‘wave like’ process, enables restoration of the land behind to be carried out progressively as the works continue.

The final void is then filled using the overburden stored in the temporary dump. Soils are re-spread over the restored overburden and completed areas of restoration are then subjected to a five-year period of aftercare, when the land undergoes an agreed programme of rehabilitation.

Among the improvements is a series of drainage channels and watercourses, which will irrigate land for grazing. Miller says that working south to north, the land in the south will be fully restored as early as 2013.

Ultimately, it claims, the restored site “will reflect the historic setting that existed before the industrial revolution took its toll”.

By Peter Anderson and Andrew Gaved.

Ffos-y-fran’s troubled history

Two issues caused two decades’ worth of trouble for the site: access rights and protests over disruption to residents.

1994 the scheme was revised to claim a larger coal reserve in line with Government guidance. However, this was withdrawn in May 1999 due to access rights issues.

2003 Access rights were finally resolved by developer Miller Argent and a new application was made to the Merthyr Council and the Welsh Assembly. But residents were worried that work with heavy machinery could take place less than 40 m from nearby homes. Miller has said it will not do any blasting within 300 m of the site and “recognised residential dwellings”.

2005 In February the Welsh Assembly approved the scheme, but the High Court subsequently reversed the decision after local residents accused the Welsh authorities of deciding in favour of the
project before the planning committee had actually met. This ‘procedural irregularity’ was strenuously denied and the Welsh Assembly appealed to the House of Lords.

2006 The Lords found no grounds for challenging the planning merits of the scheme as originally approved by the Welsh Assembly and refused the petition of the objectors, granting final approval last November.

The Miller Argent fleet

“When you are moving 360 million tonnes of material, developing the right equipment strategy is all about the cost per tonne and productivity,” says Miller Argent director James Poyner.

The three Komatsu PC3000 Super Shovels weigh in at 258 tonnes each, have 15 cu m buckets and are powered by 940 kW Komatsu diesel engines. Two have been supplied in backhoe configuration while the third has a front shovel. KMG Warrington has also supplied an elderly Demag D159 shovel which is being used as a backup machine in the event of any maintenance downtime.

The mining shovels excavate the overburden, then load the Cat 777F trucks to transport it to stockpile dumps around the site. Twenty-six of these trucks will operate six days a week, with two units used as replacements for routine maintenance.

As the overburden is removed the smaller Caterpillar excavators, fitted with coal shovels, will extract the coal from seams ranging in thickness from 250 mm up to 1 m, then load the trucks for transporting to Aberthaw.

According to Finning one of the key elements in winning the major share of the equipment contract was the importance Miller Argent attached to product support, service and maintenance throughout the duration of the contract.

As part of the deal Finning has built three on-site service bays, with a full-time team that includes service engineers, a contract co-ordinator and a contract manager.


28 100-tonne capacity 777F off-highway trucks
3 D9T dozer
1 D10T dozer
3 16M graders
4 324DL graders
2 325DL hydraulic excavators
1 330DL hydraulic excavator
1 980H wheeled loader
1 966H wheeled loader
2 824H wheeled dozers
2 773 water bowsers
1 725 fuel bowser

3 PC3000 Super Shovels