Call to restore opencast sites in west Wales

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Media captionNeath Port Talbot council boss Steve Phillips is concerned restoration costs could fall to the taxpayer

A mining firm should accept moral responsibility for restoring two opencast sites, say politicians following the collapse of a fraud case.

Celtic Energy transferred ownership of mines at Margam, near Port Talbot, and East Pit in Amman Valley to a firm in the Caribbean.

The Serious Fraud Office had accused six people, including two former directors of the firm, of trying to avoid paying the restoration costs.

But a judge threw out the case.

He ruled nothing unlawful had taken place and an attempt to re-open the case in October also failed.

Once coal extraction ends companies are obliged to restore opencast sites.

The cost of reinstating both sites is estimated at about £150m, but less than £10m has been set aside so far.

The owner, Oak Regeneration, which is listed in the British Virgin Islands, says it cannot meet the restoration costs and Neath Port Talbot (NPT) council said it understands the company would go into liquidation if it tried to force payment.

Oak Regeneration has put forward plans on both sites which include housing at Margam and a hotel at East Pit. Both plans involve more mining, which has provoked strong local opposition in the past.

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Media captionThis opencast site at Margam has not been in operation since 2008 and is filled with water

But NPT council chief executive Steve Phillips says he is concerned a bill of tens of millions of pounds could eventually fall on the taxpayer.

First Minister Carwyn Jones, in his capacity as a constituency assembly member, and six other AMs and MPs in the Bridgend, Neath and Port Talbot areas, have called on Celtic Energy, as the original owner, to help pay for the clean-up.

Will Watson, the current chief executive of Celtic Energy, denies it has failed to fund restoration, saying that by 2017 there will be around £70m in a number of funds for this purpose at other sites across Wales.

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Media captionCeltic Energy boss Will Watson on solutions for the opencast mining site at Margam

"Money was being set aside," he said. "As the price of coal has fallen dramatically but the costs have risen significantly then the cash available reduces."

He said: "We rely on refilling the pot on mining going forward and if you do not get planning consent then that becomes much more difficult.

"I hope that by discussing it with the local authority we can still find a pragmatic, realistic solution but that will involve a development with some sort of return to the developer."

The East Pit site in the Amman Valley is the oldest opencast in Wales still in operation, with roughly another two years' worth of coal to be extracted.

The Margam site has not been operational since 2008.

Much of it has since filled with water and nearby residents are concerned it poses a flood risk.

Image caption An application at East Pit is due to be considered by Neath Port Talbot council next year

Oak Regeneration has put forward plans for both sites which include housing and more mining.

An application for East Pit is due to be considered next year, but there is no agreement on what should happen at Margam.

Aberavon AM David Rees has called on Celtic Energy to take responsibility, saying: "They have a moral obligation to be involved in the restoration.

"I do not think anyone wants the option of mining as a means of doing something that should have been sorted out by now.

"They knew they had obligations. Why didn't they put these things in place many years ago?"

Image caption The cost of restoration for both opencast sites once mining is completed is estimated at about £150m

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