“I don’t care where the money comes from,” says Phil Thomas.

“You should be doing it now and arguing about it later - the weather doesn’t wait for funding.”

Like many people in the south Wales valleys, Mr Thomas, an Ynyshir resident of eight years, lives in the shadow of a mountainside dotted with coal spoil tips.

He became worried about safety in February last year, after approx 60,000 tonnes of spoil collapsed into a ravine in Tylorstown, Rhondda Cynon Taff - about a ten minute drive from his home.

During the double hit of Storms Christopher and Dennis, around a month’s worth of rain had fallen in just 48hrs in the valleys, oversaturating and destabilising one of the smaller tips that lies below the enormous, locally iconic - and oddly beloved - “Old Smoky” tip in Llanwonno.

Communities across south Wales faced significant flooding throughout 2020 (Both photos: Huw Evans Agency)

The incident triggered painful memories of the Aberfan Disaster - which took place 55 years ago last Thursday - for people across south Wales, and sparked immediate calls for tips across the Valleys to be assessed for landslide risks.

A joint UK and Welsh Government coal tip safety taskforce was set up to carry out this work, assigning each tip a risk category. Of the more than 2,000 tips in Wales, 294 were initially identified as “higher risk”, but an update this month raised that number to 327. 

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The Welsh Government has yet to publish the locations of these tips, but says its shared the information with local authorities.

The reason for this, it says, is so that “further quality assurance work” can take place, and so that the owners of private land on which many tips sit can be consulted.

For Mr Thomas, this isn’t good enough. 

“I get very frustrated,” he says.

“I don't believe quality assurance should stop them from at least releasing the highest risk tips.

“They'll know which ones have the highest risk, this has been monitored since, you know, the late sixties, early seventies. These records exist.

“For them to say that they're having quality assurance issues feels to me like an excuse.”

60,000 tonnes of coal slurry collapsed in Tylorstown last year

Nobody had been hurt in the Tylorstown landslide, but the waste material blocked and diverted part of the Rhondda River, and damaged sewage infrastructure. It also buried a bike path, which Mr Thomas himself had often ran and cycled in his spare time.

Mr Thomas says he initially had faith that the problem would be quickly resolved.

“I was concerned, but I heard all the good things coming from the local councillors, the Welsh Government and so on,” he said.

“I thought, well, that's great, they're probably going to look into it.

“But it just hasn’t really happened.”

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The clean-up operation in Tylorstown, headed by private civil engineering company Walters, is being carried out in four phases. Phase one - emergency drainage works at the site to prevent further slippage - was completed over the course of 2020.

Phase two (repairing the eroded hillside embankment, referred to as “scour”), and phase 3 (removing the spoil from the ravine) got underway last June, with Walters reporting they had made “significant progress” in May this year.

 

Meanwhile, civil engineering company Alun Griffiths reported this week that their work to stabilise the hillside is “near completion”.

“It’s painfully slow work,” says Mr Thomas.

“You can tell. You know, every time I see it, there's not a huge amount that's happened, apart from the bottom level [of waste], the top level is just still there. 

“We had a slip in Wattstown in December, and it’s taken until this past week for something to be done with that.”

The damage at Wattstown coal tip (Photo: RCT Council)

A small section of Wattstown Standard Tip, a conspicuous conical lump sitting above the village, slipped following another bout of heavy winter rain. Announcing the start of stabilisation work at the site this week, RCT Council admitted the tip had “continued to deteriorate” since December.

READ MORE: Welsh mining communities are being left on the slag heap

Councillor Andrew Morgan, Leader of Rhondda Cynon Taf Council and Cabinet Member with responsibility for Highways and Transportation, said of the matter: “Working with Welsh Government and The Coal Authority, the Council continues to monitor its former colliery sites as a priority – particularly in light of increased rainfall brought by climate change.

"[We have] continued to closely monitor the site, assess its condition, and identify any further causes for concern.

"This has been carried out to ensure the community is protected, and also to reassure local residents that the site is being effectively managed.

"A scheme is now being brought forward to deliver emergency works, funded by Welsh Government and delivered by The Coal Authority."

 

Like most of Wales’s leftover tips, the Wattstown site is on privately-owned land. As UK coal mining wound down in the eighties and nineties, the National Coal Board sold off huge swathes of its land relatively cheaply to the private sector, a move which some believed was motivated by a desire to duck responsibility for securing the tips.

During a parliamentary debate on the matter in 1995, Paddy Tipping, then MP for Sherwood, warned: “The priorities of the private sector may well be to... avoid tackling the liabilities.

“We could be faced with a situation where the public sector pays twice—once by discounting the sale and once by being left with contamination to clear up later.”

Phil Thomas, who runs a brewery in Trefforest, has been campaigning to clear the south Wales coal tips since last year (Photo: Phil Thomas)

Knowing that he himself lives directly below a coal tip, Mr Thomas has undertaken an extraordinary amount of research into the issue’s history - visiting Glamorgan Archives to pore over old inspection reports by the National Coal Board, submitting Freedom of Information requests, and questioning RCT Council.

Those inspection reports, he says, suggest that his house may be at risk, but some of the recommended works to mitigate those risks were never carried out.

“With the council - I'm not getting any responses from them, to be perfectly frank,” Mr Thomas says.

“This document said that a concrete, steel-reinforced gabion channel needed to be put through the lower slope of the coal tip, because a stream is cutting through the top.

“That recommendation was 1974. I asked, ‘why haven’t you done it?’ - but they haven’t answered.”

READ MORE: Remembering the Gresford Colliery disaster of 1934

It’s been estimated that between £500-600million in all will be needed to secure Wales’s tips, and the Senedd is currently embroiled in a row with Westminster over their refusal to provide the extra funding.

Delyth Jewell, Plaid Cymru spokesperson for the environment, gave an impassioned speech on the subject to the Senedd this week.

While Mr Thomas agrees that London should foot the bill, calling the UK government’s behaviour “shocking”, he is frustrated by the row. He worries that winter will bring further rainstorms - that the Senedd will be overtaken by events as climate change makes extreme rainfall more frequent.

“The weather doesn't wait for the budget to be approved, and neither should we be waiting - this work should be starting today,” he says.

“Look at Tylorstown - that’s a huge operation. We should be doing this with over 300 tips.

“They need to start the project now, so they can build the resources, the expertise and knowledge - before something really, truly unfortunate goes wrong.”

Llanwonno's "Old Smoky" coal tip, so-called because trapped heat formerly caused the tip to smoke when it rained (Photo: O3D, licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0)

That so many Welsh tips are on private land, Phil believes, is a significant part of the problem, as the government must seek landowners’ cooperation and consent in order to catalogue and stabilise the risky tips.

“We’re relying on the landowners to flatten them, landscape them, so they pose less of a risk,” he says.

“It doesn't feel fair that the government can't say - ‘well, we'll take the land off you, and we'll sort it out.’

“I'd like to see emergency measures be called, for all the land to be taken off the landowner unless they're willing to comply and do the work that the Council says they should be doing. 

“And then, you know - crack on. 

“It always seems to be that we argue about funding, and then down the road, when we’ve got funding, we’ll do something.

“There’s a bloody junior school below one of these tips - doesn’t anybody care anymore?”

A minor landslip occurred behind Pontygwaith Primary School last year. A tip is also located on the hillside behind Ynyshir Primary School.

A Welsh Government coal tip safety summit is expected to take place next Tuesday 26th October, likely involving the UK Coal Authority.  

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