TEST blasting at a controversial opencast coalmine is due to start today.

Banks Mining is scheduled to carry out the first explosive exercise at the Bradley site at Dipton, near Consett.

The company has said it is standard practice in surface mining, but the next stage of the development is not welcome among residents who claim natural wildlife habitats have been destroyed.

Mark Dowdall, environment and community director at The Banks Group, said: “The controlled use of explosives to fracture rock is a standard operational procedure within surface mining.

“It is designed to loosen the material above and between coal seams to make its subsequent excavation more efficient, and is always planned and carried out with the safety of our workforce and surrounding communities as an absolute priority.

“It is a controlled process that takes place within the mining void below the surrounding ground level and will occur at Bradley during the working of the second part of the site, in accordance with the scheme’s planning permission.”

Work to extract 500,000 tonnes of coal got underway last June after a protracted legal battle with residents and weeks of high profile demonstrations by environmental activists.

Mr Dowdall said: “We have already informed the Bradley Community Liaison Committee and the residents living closest to the site that an initial test blast is scheduled to take place on February 6.

“The operation is then expected to commence in March depending on the site programme, with a maximum of two blasts taking place per day, and we will continue to ensure that all parties are kept fully informed about progress as it is made.”

The Banks Group will be at Teesside Magistrates’ Court on Monday, charged with destroying the habitat of a protected species.

Donald Kent, who lives nearby, has brought the private prosecution, following the destruction of Brooms Pond which, it is claimed, was the breeding ground of an established population of great crested newts.

Scarlet Hall, from the Coal Action Network, said: “Banks Group is the only company in the UK actively seeking to start new opencast coal mines. It professes to enhance the areas where it opencasts, but nothing could be further from the truth.”