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UK potash mine wins planning consent 1 July 2015

Peter Kenyon, TunnelTalk

Planning permission for the £1.6 billion York Potash mine project in Yorkshire, UK, is granted. At a special planning meeting yesterday (30 June), 15 voting members of the North Yorks Moors National Park (NYMNP) planning committee decided by the narrowest of margins to approve the development by 8 votes to 7.

Plan of attack for 37.5km mineral transport tunnel
Plan of attack for 37.5km mineral transport tunnel

The mine – which includes construction of a 36.5km long mineral transportation tunnel – will be one of the most heavily mitigated projects in the UK. Project owner Sirius Minerals, which owns York Potash, has agreed to a package of financial concessions to the National Park, and other local organisations, worth £175 million. In addition it has agreed to make annual payments of up to £6 million a year to a local trust fund, and to establish a Restoration Bond that will be paid on escrow to cover remedial work should the development company fail. It is likely that these so-called Section 106 concessions, which are a legal way of offsetting environmental impacts under UK planning law, proved decisive in tipping the balance at yesterday’s planning meeting.

Public support

Unusually, most of the 100 members of the public crowded into yesterday’s critical meeting, appeared to be in favour of the development. Huge levels of local support for the project – both political, and among local residents –have been a distinctive feature throughout the four-year planning process. NYMNP planning officers who drew up a 239-page report summarising all the arguments for and against the development conceded that 93% of all submissions received were in favour of the project. They also conceded that 81% of all submissions from those living inside the National Park boundary were in favour of the scheme.

Local councils, trade organisations and Members of Parliament all lobbied in favour of granting approval to a project that has always been claimed by Sirius Minerals to offer “exceptional” economic benefits to the local and national economies. The company claims that a peak production the mine has the potential reduce the UK’s entire balance of payments trade deficit by 4%.

Summary of the £1.6 billion York Potash mega-project

Park planning officers made an “open” recommendation for yesterday’s vote, enabling individual voting members – on the face of it – to reach their own independent decisions. The officers, however, proceeded to spend much of the10-hour meeting outlining the negatives, and the general feeling was always that there was a less-than-well-hidden agenda against development.

Chief among National Park planning officer concerns were the visual impact of the 45m high mine head buildings, the environmental threat posed by large numbers of HGV movements, and a feeling that Sirius had failed to prove the economic benefits were exceptional enough to pass the “Major Development Test.” Planning permission in a National Park will always be presumed unlikely for a development of this size and impact unless the applicant is able to prove that the Major Development Test has been met.

The planning officers also argued that there was no proven world need for polyhalite, which is a form of natural fertiliser, and questioned Sirius’s business strategy and even the efficacy of its huge advance sales agreements with companies in China and elsewhere.

However, a representative of the UK Highways Agency present at the meeting told members in no uncertain terms that local road capacity was well able to cope with the extra traffic movements that would be required, and that “the residual impact is not severe”. She said: “It is our road network and if there are issues it will be our colleagues whose phones will ring. We’ve not based our final recommendation in support of the application on anything other than national criteria.”

In the end the promise of 1,000 jobs in what is a depressed area of the UK, the promise of a project that at peak production of 13 million tonne of polyhalite per year expects to generate annual sales in excess of £1.3 billion, and the “exceptional opportunity” in terms of local and national economic benefits and the promise of being able to tackle the world hunger problem, proved decisive.

New harbour facility in Redcar will facilitate international exports
New harbour facility in Redcar will facilitate international exports

Underground construction

The project, which has been four years in the planning by owner Sirius Minerals, includes as its most critical feature a 36.5km x 6.5m o.d. TBM-bored tunnel between the mine head site at Dove’s Nest Farm near Whitby, and a portal near the town of Redcar.

Tunnel design, by engineering consultant Arup, specifies TBM excavation with a mix of concrete segmental lining, shotcrete, and steel arch and rockbolt support, depending on geological conditions along an alignment that is primarily through competent Redcar Mudstone. Five hard rock TBMs are specified in the preliminary design.

In addition to excavation of a 1.6km deep mine shaft to afford access to the world’s largest known reserve of polyhalite (potash), the design also incorporates a main tunnelling shaft of 360m x 9m i.d., four more intermediate/ ventilation/ TBM-staging shafts, a portal at the northern end of the alignment, and caverns up to 200m x 16m at the bottom of each of the tunnelling shafts.

Final permission for the new processing plant and port facility in Redcar is yet to be granted, but a Government Planning Inspector will be making his recommendation on this to the UK Secretary of State in January 2016. With the Park permission now secured, this is expected to be a formality. The construction phase of all elements of the project is expected to last 59 months, but funding the capital cost of construction will be Sirius’s next obstacle. With critical planning permission now granted, however, there are likely to be a selection of financing arrangements open to the company’s board of directors, including the possibility of a new share placing or possible partnering arrangements.

National Park decision day for UK potash mine 18 June 2015

Peter Kenyon, TunnelTalk

Seventeen men and women will meet in 12 days time, on 30 June 2015, to decide the fate of a £1.6 billion mining project that features a 36.5km TBM bored tunnel at its heart. The crucial vote should have involved all 20 members of the North York Moors Authority’s planning committee, but so far three have submitted apologies and will not be attending what is probably the most important meeting in the Park’s history.

The  36.5km mineral transport tunnel is a crucial element of the vast underground potash mine development
The 36.5km mineral transport tunnel is a crucial element of the vast underground potash mine development

York Potash, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Sirius Minerals, has been planning for a number of years to exploit what is believed to be the world’s largest underground reserve of polyhalite (potash), a natural agricultural fertiliser. The reserve, which sits under the County of Yorkshire and extends under the North Sea, could be worth more than £1 billion a year in revenue once the infrastructure needed to extract, transport and refine it is built.

The controversial £1.6 billion project, which involves construction of a 1,600m deep minehead in the protected North York Moors National Park at Dove’s Nest near Whitby, looked unlikely to gain the necessary planning approvals until a change of strategy by the owner last year. In order to transport the raw polyhalite some 37km from the minehead to a planned new port facility at Redcar, York Potash initially proposed a pipeline transfer system that would have required extensive open cut excavation along its entire length.

This system was revised to incorporate a 36.5km long deep level TBM-bored tunnel of approximately 6.5m i.d., reducing visual impact along most of the alignment and addressing many of the key environmental concerns. Largely as a result of this change, many of the local councils in the area felt able to support the proposal on economic grounds since it is expected to raise significant local and national tax revenues and create up to 1,000 jobs during construction. The local Conservative Member of Parliament Robert Goodwill has come out publicly and strongly in support of the mine, as has the area’s Local Enterprise Partnership.

The proposed tunnel-based mineral transportation system (MTS) already has planning approval from Redcar and Cleveland, and Scarborough local councils, whose boundaries the application straddles, but the key battle will be to gain approval from the North York Moors Authority (NYMA). This is a special body made up of 20 members who are appointed by various county, district (urban) and parish (village) councils that serve the locality, as well as members appointed by the UK National Government’s Department of Food, Rural Affairs and Agriculture (Defra). Owners of large-scale projects on National Park land need to be able to prove ‘exceptional circumstances’ if they are to overcome stringent development regulations.

36.5km tunnel from minehead at Whitby, to Redcar
36.5km tunnel from minehead at Whitby, to Redcar

Most of the mineral transportation tunnel, and none of the port or refining facilities, impact upon the National Park. Three of the five shafts required to stage the five TBM drives proposed in a design by consulting firm Arup for York Potash, also lie outside the National Park boundary.

However, the 1,600m deep minehead and the associated 360m deepMTS tunnel access shaft are located in the Park. Spoil from both of these excavations is to be used at Dove’s Nest to create landscaped screening of the site.

For approval to be granted, a simple majority of the voting members of the NYMA will be required. The full and final planning application by York Potash has been subjected to a thorough review by the Authority’s own appointed specialist planning consultant, AMEC Wheeler. On the basis of this specialist review an ‘open’ recommendation has been made to members of the NYMA planning committee by its Director of Planning, Chris France. This means that the 17 members attending the meeting and subsequent vote will be free to come to their own conclusion, based on their own judgement of the likely impact on the Park when weighed against the economic benefits to the region and to the country.

The report, of hundreds of pages, was released for public inspection last week. It highlights a number of concerns, chief among which are the large number of traffic movements that will be required during the construction period, the visual impact of having a minehead located in a National Park, the loss of tourism-related income during construction, and the tightness of a schedule that envisages a 60-month excavation and building period.

A major advantage for York Potash, however, is that NYMA’s planning consultant has accepted that there exists no commercially viable alternative minehead site either inside or outside the National Park. This is important because planners might otherwise have insisted upon further lengthy geological investigations being carried out at other locations before feeling able to reach any decision about the suitability of the Dove’s Nest site from a planning and environmental perspective.

Projected view of the Dove’s Nest minehead
Projected view of the Dove’s Nest minehead

Predicting which way the NYMA members might vote is difficult. None are directly elected: instead they are appointed by regional, local and national government organisations. Some of these organisations have come out in public support of the application, and on Wednesday (17 June) the Conservative Party-led councils of Scarborough and Ryedale – which each appoint two members to the NYMA – took the unusual step of announcing official support for the mine in a public statement.

Scarborough Council Leader Councillor Derek Bastiman said: “We are wholeheartedly in favour of the York Potash planning application. The development of the new mine is critical to enabling the Scarborough and Ryedale Councils to further diversify their economies and to create a more resilient economic base. We recognise the significant impact it would have on inward investment for our communities, both during construction and once operational. The project is exceptional both in terms of meeting local economic need and in the context of UK national economic policy, so approval of the planning application would be very much in the public interest.”

North Yorkshire County Council, which appoints four members to the NYMA, told TunnelTalk that although it had indicated support for the mine on economic grounds during the consultation period, this fell short of officially endorsing the application. A spokesman said that its four appointed members were free to vote whichever way they saw fit, regardless of North Yorkshire County Council’s position.

Redcar and Cleveland Council appoints two members of the NYM Authority, and although it holds no official position, the same council has granted planning consent for the MTS, implying the possibility that its appointed members will follow suit and vote to approve the application.

One recent development that may prove critical is the improved financial offer York Potash has submitted to mitigate the remaining environmental concerns raised by NYMA’s consultant, AMEC Wheeler. The so-called Section 106 offer – a device often used by developers in the UK to encourage the passage of planning applications by (legally) offering financial inducements that will benefit the consenting planning authority – is now worth £175 million over the lifetime of the project. This is in addition to the £6 million a year that has been promised to a specially created charitable Foundation that will disburse the funds to the benefit of the local area once production starts.

York Potash has already stated that it will appeal immediately to the UK Secretary of State should permission be refused by the NYMA on 30 June. This would involve the UK Planning Inspectorate making a final recommendation to the National Government, a process that would take another 6–9 months.

TunnelTalk will continue to report on developments concerning this major project as they unfold in the coming days, weeks and months.

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