A MINING firm has sold a chemical transport division for £26.9m as it looks to increase its presence in the UK coal industry.

Hargreaves Services, in Esh Winning, near Durham City, says Imperial Tankers has been bought by Suttons Group.

Imperial, founded in 1989, is one of the UK’s largest bulk chemical transport firms, operating hundreds of tankers.

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However, Hargreaves says it has been sold to concentrate on its growing coal business.

The ambitious company, which supplies coke for steel firm SSI UK’s Redcar blast furnace, last year started work on an opencast coal site at Well Hill, near Morpeth, Northumberland.

The Northern Echo previously revealed the firm expects to dig more coal mines and create jobs in the region in the coming years, with proposals for an opencast site in Field House, near West Rainton, County Durham.

It also rescued hundreds of coal jobs when it bought assets from collapsed surface mining firm Aardvark for £10.4m last year.

Gordon Banham, Hargreaves Services’ chief executive, said: “Imperial Tankers is a quality business and has developed into one of the strongest tanker brands in the country.

“I’m pleased it has been sold to a high calibre operator, which is seeking to expand.”

In a report, Hargreaves said coal continues to be a key component of UK energy, but warned Government policies and weaker prices could affect its work.

It said: “Coal will be an important constituent of energy for many years to come.

“The UK coal market, principally led by the demand of power generators, will remain of sufficient size to support comfortably the group's plans for its coal production and distribution businesses for many years too.

“However, in the nearer term, increasing uncertainty around Government policy, the weakness in international coal prices and volatility in gas prices, and hence coal burn, is leading generators to delay purchase contracts or source coal on shorter-term contracts.

“But surface mining is a core asset and store of long-term and indigenous coal will continue to be an important fuel for UK power.

“The strength of the group's position in surface mining leaves it uniquely placed to capitalise on any future upturn in coal prices and coal-fired power generation.”

Suttons, which has bases in Middlesbrough and Thornaby, near Stockton, said its deal for Imperial would allow it to continue its growth.

John Sutton, Suttons Group chief executive, added: “This is an ideal fit for us.

“Our combined fleet of more than 700 road tankers gives us an even greater ability to support customers through times of peak demand and react rapidly to changing requirements.”