Rhodri Evans is a GP in Newport, South Wales. He is interested in the environment and health, specifically the effects of air pollution. He is on Twitter: @DrRhodriEvans
Wales bans coal. It’s worth repeating it. Wales bans coal has the same stereotypical resonance as France bans wine or USA bans guns. But this is no April fool’s newspaper headline. In January the Welsh government proposed that the burning of domestic coal would be outlawed in Wales in its drive to improve air pollution in the country.
It is no historical overstatement that modern Wales was built on coal. The county of Glamorgan in the late 19th century was one of the richest in the UK, and had an economic and demographic explosion to match any seen in California in the 20th century.
A combination of the industrial revolution and colonial expansion had created an insatiable demand for the black gold found in rich seams in the narrow valleys of South Wales. Previously obscure rural settings such as Rhondda suddenly became internationally renowned for the quality of its coal. Heavy industry such as steel developed near to the coal, creating large towns such as Merthyr Tydfil and Ebbw Vale. And in order to export the coal to the world, a network of train-lines converged on a hitherto small fishing town called Cardiff.
… the cost [of coal mining] was enormous. My own grandfather died of complications related to pneumoconiosis, as did thousands of other miners.
Tycoons such as the Marquess of Bute built some of the largest docks in the world, and at its peak in 1913, Cardiff exported 13 million tonnes to the world.1 The docks and the supporting structures developed into a city, and Cardiff became one of the youngest capitals in Europe in 1955. The ruins of the docks have by now been replaced by Cardiff Bay, where now stands the Richard Rogers-designed Welsh Parliament, or Senedd as we like to call it.
There were benefits from coal. Poor rural Welsh had no need to emigrate abroad, as they did from Ireland or the Scottish Highlands; instead they moved to the southern valleys. At times of economic growth there were well-paid jobs in the mines, with an educational and cultural dividend in the growth of libraries, choirs, and the unusual adoption of a hitherto English public school sport — rugby.
On a UK level, the legacy persists. The young Aneurin Bevan was a coal-miner until his fellowship to the Central Labour College allowed him to flourish as a politician. And in his home-constituency he found in The Tredegar Medical Aid Society the model for universal health care, which became the NHS.
Julian Tudor-Hart deliberately moved from his comfortable London existence to the mining community of Glyncorrwg where he was inspired to develop the seminal inverse care law. Arguably one of the greatest works of medical fiction, AJ Cronin’s The Citadel, was set in the South Wales coalfield.
But the cost was enormous. My own grandfather died of complications related to pneumoconiosis, as did thousands of other miners. Direct and indirect effects of industrial pollution cut short the lives of countless adults and children.
In terms of the environment, age-old oak-filled valleys were denuded of their forests to make way for the coal-mines, railways, and the iconic steep-terraced housing. Rivers such as the Taff almost died because of the industrial pollution, and even after the Thatcher-led de-industrialisation of the 1980s, it took many years for this ecological devastation to be reversed: not until 2014 was it reported that salmon had spawned in the upper Taff — the first time in 200 years.2
The most visible environmental scars in industrial South Wales were the coal tips, looming over the valleys. Residents had complained about these abominations for decades, and their concerns fell on deaf ears. But then came Aberfan. Arguably one of the worst environmental health disasters in UK history, interest in it was recently re-ignited by the Netflix drama, The Crown, which devoted a whole episode to the tragedy. It is certainly a story that should forever be re-told — by whatever medium.
On Friday 21 October 1966, at 9.15 am, the children of Pantglas Primary School, Aberfan, were starting their morning lessons, when Coal Tip No 7 collapsed after days of heavy rain. Thousands of tonnes of coal-waste rushed onto the school and neighbouring houses, killing 116 children and 28 adults.
Subsequent lengthy enquiries fell well short of the mark in attributing responsibility and giving the community any sense of justice. And despite efforts to safeguard the 2000 remaining coal tips in South Wales, many of which by now have blended into the surrounding hills, the threat remains.
In February 2020, following the torrential rains of Storm Dennis, a landslide occurred at a former coal tip in Tylerstown, Rhondda Valley, which lies 10 miles from Aberfan. Mercifully there were no casualties, but a review has recently classed 294 coal tips as ‘high risk’,3,4 and the concern has been amplified by the increasingly frequent storms and floods caused by climate change.
With such a poisonous legacy, there was little or no objection to the Welsh government’s recent proposal to ban the burning of house coal within 2 years. It also stated a desire to ban the sale of wet wood for house fires.
Both of these measures were proposed as part of the government’s Clean Air Bill, a legislative framework for the Clean Air Plan, a 10-year strategy to tackle air pollution in Wales that was published in August 2020.5 The white paper would give statutory powers to establish and protect Clean Air Zones, with a particular focus on the roads in these areas. Also, domestic burning, which includes residential heating, indoor/outdoor cooking, and the burning of household/garden waste, would be heavily regulated.
… coal plays no part in the energy requirements of any nation serious about reaching net zero carbon emissions …
Coal burning has declined markedly in the UK over the last 40 years. Partly for political, and partly for economic reasons, the UK made a strategic switch to gas in the 1980s. There were plentiful supplies in the North Sea, and following the Miners’ Strike in 1984–85 the majority of the UK pits closed quickly, leading to the socioeconomic devastation of areas such as industrial South Wales.
The rise of renewable energy cemented its final decline, so that by the summer of 2020, over a period of 2 months, no coal was burned to generate electricity in the UK. The few remaining coal-burning power stations are due to close over the next few years.
There has, however, been a rise in domestic coal burning, as well as wood, because of the popularity of indoor burners. The COVID-19 lockdowns led to so-called ‘cottagecore’ accounts on Instagram, and similar to the Danish Hygge, pictures of blazing hearths were prized above all else. Unfortunately, these fires are major contributors of small particle air pollution (PM2.5), which have well-documented effects on chest illnesses and other pollution-related diseases.
The decision by the Welsh government mirrors the ban in England of wet wood and bags of house coal, due to come into effect on 2021.6 Wood burners will continue to rise in popularity however, and there needs to be a broader ban on the domestic burning of all wood and coal.
More broadly, coal plays no part in the energy requirements of any nation serious about reaching net zero carbon emissions, and the UK as a whole has an opportunity to demonstrate this in the run-up to COP26, Glasgow, to countries such as Poland, India, and China, which remain heavily dependent on coal for power. That is why the recent controversy about the proposal to open a new coal mine in Cumbria was so disappointing.
As Wales has demonstrated, coal was once a formative part of the UK’s history, but now it should remain firmly in the ground.
1. Davies J. Cardiff and the Marquesses of Bute. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1981.
2. Natural Resources Wales. New approach to protecting wild salmon. 2014. https://naturalresources.wales/about-us/news-and-events/news/new-approach-to-protecting-wild-salmon (accessed 6 Apr 2021).
3. Griffiths L. Written Statement: update on coal tip safety. 2021. https://gov.wales/written-statement-update-coal-tip-safety (accessed 6 Apr 2021).
4. Fairclough S. Coal tips: almost 300 in Wales classed as ‘high risk’. BBC News 2021; 16 Feb: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-56073459 (accessed 6 Apr 2021).
5. Welsh Government. White Paper on a Clean Air (Wales) Bill. 2021. https://gov.wales/white-paper-clean-air-wales-bill (accessed 6 Apr 2021).
6. UK Government. Explanatory memorandum to the air quality (domestic solid fuels standards) (England) Regulations 2020. 2020. https://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2020/1095/memorandum/contents (accessed 6 Apr 2021).