In her anodyne statement on coal tip safety last month, Julie James MS, Minister for Climate Change, writes “it is important for members of the public to know the safeguarding of our communities remains a priority”.

Except it doesn’t. It never has.

And that’s backed up by the Law Commission after consulting stakeholders as part of its report ‘Regulating Coal Tip Safety in Wales’. The report was commissioned by the government in the wake of the the 2020 landslides in Wattstown, Tylorstown and Clydach in the Rhondda.

The National Wales: A landslip at a coal tip site in Tylorstown, Rhondda Cynon Taf. Photo: RCT Council via Welsh GovernmentA landslip at a coal tip site in Tylorstown, Rhondda Cynon Taf. Photo: RCT Council via Welsh Government

The 200-page report details the abject failure of coal barons and senior politicians alike, from the beginning of the coal industry to this day, to take coal tip safety seriously.

In fact, according to the report, current legislation enshrined in the Mines and Quarries (Tips) Act of 1969, passed after the Aberfan disaster, “does not create any duty to ensure the safety of coal tips”.

How can be that be? Because it always was.

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

Between 1898 and 1967, there were 23 major coal tip failures in Wales. Following the Cilfynydd coal tip slide in 1939, a memorandum of precautions to prevent tips sliding was drawn up, but was never distributed and the precautions never adopted.

Nationalisation in 1947 changed nothing.

The tribunal set up after the 1966 Aberfan disaster belatedly recommended the creation of the National Tip Safety Committee which was duly formed in 1968. Incredibly the committee wasn’t mentioned in the 1969 bill and was probably disbanded soon afterwards.

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Instead, the 1969 Act focussed on active mines, ignoring the increasing number of disused mines and their tips, now mainly on private land, which brings additional problems of access. The most glaring failure of the 1969 Act, however, is the lack of powers to intervene unless there is a concern that the tip is unstable. Too late.

And so the landslides keep happening. The report says that, while there were no fatalities between 1969 and 1989, there were 74 ‘dangerous occurrences’ across the UK.

In 1973, a coal tip struck houses in Cwmaman. In 2011, a remediated coal tip slipped into the playground and classrooms of a school in Tredegar. During Storm Callum in 2018, the centre of a coal tip at Tower Colliery in the Cynon Valley collapsed, only 600m away from houses.

And now the landslides of 2020, including a slippage behind a primary school in Pontygwaith, and belated response from government with the creation of yet another task force, committee and report.

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Will they succeed where others have failed?

Not unless a robust regulatory system is put in place, and that won’t happen until next year at the earliest. Not unless funding is in place to carry out inspections and remedial work and, given the spat between Cardiff Bay and Westminster over who foots the bill, that won’t happen soon either.

Interestingly the Law Commission report says that “in our provisional view coal tip safety falls within devolved competence”.

When it comes to who should pay the cost of operations, however, the report says nothing, because the question of cost is oddly outside the commission’s terms of reference.

With rainfall set to increase significantly there is no time to waste. This government has the opportunity to right past wrongs. If it doesn’t, another Aberfan is on the cards.

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