Planning permission is granted for the £1.7 billion York Potash mine project in Yorkshire, UK. At a special planning meeting yesterday (30 June), 15 voting members of the North York Moors National Park (NYMNP) planning committee decided by the narrowest of margins to approve the development by 8 votes to 7.
36.5km long mineral transportation 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 tense planning meeting.
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.
Most of the 100 members of the public crowded into yesterday’s critical meeting, appeared to be in favour of the development.
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%.
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 the 10-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.
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.
The project includes 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. 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.