Local authorities lack the necessary legal powers to ensure disused coal tips are safe, and when inspections are carried out, they are often limited and some appear to neglect important checks, The National can reveal.

Councils have “no legislative power” to stabilise coal tips on private land, and authorities are also unable to compel private landowners to carry out the works themselves, a council officer said – even if the tip is categorised as high risk.

Meanwhile tip inspection records for one Rhondda Cynon Taf tip, released via a Freedom of Information request, show that tip safety inspections are often limited to a basic visual check and a checklist printed on two sides of paper.

The National Wales: Coal tips are a common site above towns and villages across south Wales (Source: Jon Pountney)Coal tips are a common site above towns and villages across south Wales (Source: Jon Pountney)

In an email to a member of the public, seen by The National, a Rhondda Cynon Taf council officer writes: “The local authority does not have any legislative powers to undertake maintenance works or compel the landowner to do so.

“It can only act when a defect would constitute ‘a danger to the public’.

“It also does not have legislative powers to undertake regular inspection other than for the reason stated previously.

“Notwithstanding that RCT do undertake regular inspection of private tips, where possible, as a duty of care.”

READ MORE: Half of Merthyr Tydfil coal tips are higher risk

The comments are largely accurate, The National understands.

Coal tip safety is governed by the Mines and Quarries (Tips) Act 1969.

The law was passed in the wake of the 1966 Aberfan Disaster, which saw 116 children and 28 adults die in a tip collapse that buried Pantglas Junior School and several houses under thousands of tonnes of coal slurry.

The National Wales: The Aberfan Disaster prompted a rush to update coal tip safety laws (Source: Huw Evans Agency)The Aberfan Disaster prompted a rush to update coal tip safety laws (Source: Huw Evans Agency)

Under the Act, councils can order the owner of a disused tip to carry out stabilisation and repair work, or even undertake the work itself, but it can only do so if the tip in question is unstable and “likely to constitute a danger to the public”.

The law specifies that a tip can only be considered unstable if “there is such a movement of the refuse that makes up the tip as to cause a significant increase in the area of land covered by the tip.”

In other words, the local authority can only act if the tip has moved to such an extent that it judges a collapse is relatively imminent. Even where this is the case, the council must also give the landowner 21 days’ notice, and in that time the landowner can appeal the order.

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Contrary to the RCT council officer’s comments, however, the Act does give local authorities the power to enter private land “at any reasonable time” to carry out tests and inspections, providing the landowner is given two days’ notice. If that notice is given and the landowner still refuses the council entry, they can be liable for a fine, and a court can order the council enter by force.

The National Wales: Most high risk tips are located in the Rhondda Cynon Taff area. (Source: Jon Pountney)Most high risk tips are located in the Rhondda Cynon Taff area. (Source: Jon Pountney)

Despite this, there are indications that some avenues of inspection are not being taken by RCT council – at least in the case of one category D tip above the town of Ynyshir.

A number of “boreholes” – deep, narrow wells used for monitoring water levels in soil – were drilled into the tip complex in Ynyshir at least as early as the 1970s.

As oversaturation of coal tip material can be such a contributory factor to a collapse, boreholes can be a vital tool for monitoring tip stability.

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Following the Aberfan Disaster, the National Coal Board carried out extensive inspections to tips across Wales, and in a 1973 report on the aforementioned tip complex in Ynyshir, an inspector noted that water levels observed in its boreholes “clearly” represented “a threat to the stability of the tip, particularly in view of the water levels recorded within the tip itself.”

The National Wales: Extensive tip inspections were carried out by the Coal Board after the Aberfan tip collapse Extensive tip inspections were carried out by the Coal Board after the Aberfan tip collapse

The report, held at the Glamorgan Archives and seen by The National, noted that parts of the tip complex were situated on porous sandstone, which could leave it vulnerable to further water saturation, and said that the steep incline between the lowermost tip and the street below would be an aggravating factor in the event of a tip collapse.

Despite this, more recent inspection reports, obtained through FOI request, suggest that water levels in those boreholes are not being monitored with any regularity.

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High risk category C and D tips are inspected by councils every three months, but the inspections generally take the form of a “visual walkover” – inspectors walk around the tip with a printed checklist, looking for visual signs of erosion or movement.

The checklists are relatively simple and cover two A4 pieces of paper, featuring boxes to identify erosion, movement, and cracking to the tip, with a space for additional comments.

The National Wales: A tip inspection sheet. Notes made by member of the public, not the council. (Source: RCT Council, Clear South Wales Coal Tips campaign group)A tip inspection sheet. Notes made by member of the public, not the council. (Source: RCT Council, Clear South Wales Coal Tips campaign group)

The resulting reports are lacking in detail and in some cases, inconsistent: “Severe” erosion reported by one inspector in March 2019, for example, is downgraded to “low severity” by February 2020 with no explanation. In other cases, identified issues are labelled “not a risk”, also without explanation.

In a 2020 inspection of the Ynyshir tip, the report made specific mention of its boreholes, reading: “There a water monitoring wells within the tip, and we recommend that these are investigated, with a view to monitoring periodically.”

The National Wales: The Ynyshir coal tip complex can be seen as soft bulges on the top middle section of the mountain. (Source: Philip Thomas)The Ynyshir coal tip complex can be seen as soft bulges on the top middle section of the mountain. (Source: Philip Thomas)

When Mr Philip Thomas, a concerned Ynyshir resident, asked the council whether this recommendation had been followed, he was told: “It’s a private tip, and the LA does not have powers to undertake this work… and at the present time there is no evidence that the tips pose an imminent risk to the public.”

The tip is located directly above a primary school.

Mr Thomas told The National: "The boreholes were tools put in place in the 1960s and 1970s to ensure public safety, and now we're being told they can't access these tools because they're in private ownership.

"A visual walkover of these tip sites is not enough to ensure public safety.

"Have the inspectors been gifted superhuman x-ray vision?"

The National Wales: Scarring on the mountainside in Tylorstown, following last year's tip collapse. (Source: Jon Pountney)Scarring on the mountainside in Tylorstown, following last year's tip collapse. (Source: Jon Pountney)

On a similar report carried out in 2019 for a coal spoil tip in Tylorstown, which collapsed following Storm Dennis last year, the inspector wrote “no major areas of concern at this time”.

 

The Welsh Government’s Law Commission is currently working to update the laws governing coal tip safety.

In an October statement, the Commission said: “There are major gaps in the current regime, which was focused on an active industry and does not provide an effective management framework for disused coal tips in the twenty-first century.”

Mr Thomas says he is particularly concerned about plans to build wind turbines on a site directly above the tips, a move he fears will impact on the stability of the mountainside.

"Lessons have not been learned - we're repeating the same mistakes by not being thorough," he said.

"As a chap in a previous job used to say to me - measure twice, cut once."

Rhondda Cynon Taf Council declined to comment publicly.

The Welsh Government was approached for comment.

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