By Amaranta Herrero / eJolt
On the 14th of February, the regional government of Castilla y León cancelled the plan for Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining (MRT) in Laciana Valley (Spain).
During the last twenty years, irreversible changes have been taking place in the Southwestern Cantabrian Mountains, in an area of great ecological value, which is protected by EU environmental legislation.
The extractive technique known as Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining (MTR) has illegally modified during this time the topography and the life of people in Laciana Valley (León). Although it is literally an explosive industrial process, this mining activity developed in relative silence, away from public opinion. In general, MTR operations are remote, located beyond the landscape seen from city centers. At first glance, only a well-trained eye can detect the landscape morphological transformations involved in the amputation of the top of a mountain and its subsequent artificial reconstruction. But for the 10.000 inhabitants directly affected by this activity, mostly connoisseurs of mountain valley profiles, MTR is constantly visible and audible.
In the past two decades, Laciana Valley has fallen into severe socio-economic decline. Coal mining has gradually reduced, partially driven by EU liberalization measures of the energy market that reduce State subsidies for the extraction of coal. Since 1990, coal production has shrunk 67% in Spain. Surface mining in Spain began in the 1970s, but it was not until 1985 that MTR, much less labour-intensive, started replacing underground mining on Laciana’s private land. The number of coal mining jobs were reduced by 85,7% in the last 20 years in Spain. In 2010, the 6,429 jobs in the Spanish coal-mining sector included directives, technicians, administrative stuff and workers from underground mining and MTR.
The local population has been highly polarised with regard to the continued existence of MTR and the future of the valley. Coal mining has been for far too long an economic monoculture in Laciana, maintained by the very close relations between the political and the economic powers in the area. Suspicion of corruption has always surrounded the coal mining sector since the 90s. Victorino Alonso, the owner of Laciana’s MTR company, Coto Minero del Cantábrico, and the main Spanish coal entrepreneur was declared guilty of fraud in 2010. On the 10th of February 2014 all Spanish coal companies have been brought in front of the Court accused of fraud related to Coal Aid.
Laciana MTR mines have been active without the legally required environmental and planning permits. At the same time, these illegal activities have, curiously, been intensively subsidised by the Spanish government and indirectly by the EU. As a result of the illegalities, the biggest private mining company in Spain, Coto Minero del Cantábrico (CMC), was brought before a Spanish court by individuals and local environmental groups. In fact, some of the inhabitants of Laciana Valley together with regional environmental groups, autonomous activists and Members of the European Parliament, have spent twenty years opposing and struggling against this industrial activity. This heterogeneous ecological resistance movement has addressed the destruction of natural resources and environmental services and the residents’ future. They sued the company and the Town Council, appealed to the European Court, wrote articles and documents, tried to reach the media, organised talks, camps, and they have even put in more than one occasion their bodies in the middle to stop the mountain destruction. This movement has fought for a different future, based on economic activities that are truly compatible with the protection of the environment. This local environmental movement in Laciana has also faced an intense process of stigmatisation and scapegoating within the Valley.
In 2006, CMC received the highest environmental fine in the country’s history (approx. €170 million) and was ordered to stop activities by the regional Administrative Court. In November 2011, the European Court of Justice also recognised the environmental crimes in Laciana. Disregarding the legal verdict, the fine remaining unpaid, the company continued MTR activities and planned expansion. This expansion plan had been presented in 2008 by the regional government. It also represented a threat to Laciana’s inhabitants, ecosystems and future, until last 14th of Februrary. With the MTR expansion plan cancelled, Laciana’s people can start a promising transition towards different, diverse and environmentally lower impact economies.
Congratulations to everybody who fought against MTR coal mining in Laciana for their long and intense ecological resistance and their final victory. If we want to promote a new and sustainable energy model, as well as having a chance of avoiding runaway climate change, it is a must to challenge the coal industry, to end fossil fuels subsidies and to leave coal underground.