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Channelling resources

QUARRYING

Marine aggregate companies were celebrating last month when the Government gave a tentative all clear to dredging for sand and gravel in the eastern English Channel.

Paul Thompson reports

MARINE won aggregates are a touchy subject for some. Depending on which side of the sea wall you sit, they are either an essential commodity, desperately needed by the construction industry to build roads, schools and - irony of ironies - sea defence systems, or nothing more than an expensive, environmentally damaging extraction method that threatens to speed up the erosion of our coastline.

Whatever you r standpoint the fact is that af ter years of debate and study, claim and counterclaim, the Government has given a host of dredging companies the all clear to start sucking up huge quantities of sand and gravel from the English Channel.

The deposits lie in about 40 m of water on the border of English and French territorial waters midway between Beachy Head in Sussex and Dieppe in France. This is almost twice the depth of most currently dredged deposits around the British Isles and is one of the main reasons the deposit has remained untouched for so long.

So large are the eastern English Channel deposits that the d redging companies will be able to take almost 40 m illion tonnes of sand and gravel from the Channel bed over the next five years.

With the south-east and London using more than 8 million tonnes of dredged material annually the approval for licences for the commercial extraction of these deposits could not have come at a better time, particularly with demand about to shoot up because of the build programme for the 2012 Olympics.

Ian Selby, operat ions director at Hanson Marine, says: 'Much of the material would be delivered directly into ports and wharves in London and the south-east. This brings a huge environmental benefit by reducing lorry traffic on already busy roads as well as supporting Government development plans by providing valuable construction material to a region fast running out of resources.'

The companies involved will now carry out final surveys of the deposits to plot working arrangements before applying to the Crown Estate, which manages the sea bed around the country, for final licences.

These should be granted within the year, according to the Crown Estate.

But the continued battle to dredge the sea bed of the English Channel has served up some stiff resistance from environmental campaigners in the past.

In 2004 the Leeds and Norwich offices of marine aggregate producer RMC (now Cemex UK) were attacked by anti-marine dredging activists who daubed slogans over walls and glued locks shut.

Now, the Crown Estate is trying to encourage companies to give up their rights to extract material from smaller, environmentally important sites in an effort to reduce the area of sea bed held by extractors.

As a result of this encouragement, and the promise of the right to harvest the eastern Channel beds, Hanson Mar ine gave up its ext ract ion rights last month to a 8.25 sq km area of sea bed off Maplin Sands in the Thames Estuary and a further 5 sq km section of the Channel near the Isle of Wight. The move was welcomed by environmentalists.

'We are pleased to see Hanson returning these licences and we encourage other marine aggregate companies and sea bed developers to take this responsible attitude towards their redevelopment plans, ' says Ian Reach, marine operations advisor at English Nature.

Whatever happens, by allowing the eastern English Channel beds to be worked, the Government has guaranteed the future for marinewon aggregates in the English Channel.